It all comes down to a curb cut and a paved-over yard, but this story is really about how things get done in the city of Philadelphia.
On a steep block of Sumac Street in Roxborough, Andrew Langsam owns the three-story, 19th-century twins at 119 and 121 Sumac. Each has a two-vehicle driveway.
Those represent the flash point between the owner and the local civic group.
The seeds of discontent
The Wissahickon Interested Citizens Association (WICA) says that in 2012, Langsam installed a curb cut at 119 Sumac St. and paved the front lawn to create a driveway without consulting with the association.
WICA had subsequent meetings with Langsam where members expressed their opposition to his actions. They said they felt he infringed on the beauty of the neighborhood and the zoning process.
Then, this May, WICA learned that a hearing was held before the Zoning Board of Adjustment at which Langsam was granted a variance for the work he had already done at the property.
So, on Sept. 19, Jeffrey Allegretti, who serves on WICA’s zoning committee, sent a letter to the ZBA on behalf of the organization. It objected to a zoning process that allowed the hearing to occur without notification to the civic group and “without citizen input.”
The letter also said that WICA’s opposition was not accurately represented by Langsam’s attorney at the hearing. It calls on the ZBA to adopt a policy that requires notification to all parties of hearings by the applicant’s attorney.
“We ask, further, that the ZBA schedule a new hearing on the matter and allow for citizen input as the process guarantees,” the WICA letter requests.
One side responds
For his part, Langsam said he is surprised by WICA’s continued concerns about the property.
He said he did seek input from his neighbors before paving the front of his yard, and they supported him.
“The side of this property was rundown and overgrown. I rehabbed the building, cleaned up the yard and put down the paving,” he said, noting that there was no need for a curb cut because the edge of the property was already at street level.
Langsam lives at the Sumac Street address. He serves on the Roxborough Development Corp. board and is a member of the Roxborough Business Improvement District Advisory Council.
He said his interest is in improving the quality of properties in the area and that he is investing in the future of the community.
He said his attorney did notify WICA members regarding the zoning hearing, but there was a miscommunication regarding the purpose.
The other side says …
WICA member Charles “Chip” Roller lives around the corner from the Sumac Street properties.
“We do not want more curb cuts, cars that cross sidewalks and yards paved with asphalt,” he said by way of explaining the association’s objections. “We’ve been adamant about this in the past. We want to preserve green space and the appearance of the block.”
But the issue is “bigger than one address,” said Roller, a former RDC board member.
“It’s about permissiveness” in Philadelphia government agencies, which allow developers to take action and then say, “I’ve already done it. Let me go,” he said.
Jon Miller, president of WICA since July, said the organization is still considering what action it will seek regarding Langsam’s property.
He said WICA will explore whether Langsam intentionally circumvented the civic group.
“It’s being looked into. If everything is fine and above board, that’s great. It’s something the membership has to decide,” Miller said. “The bigger issue here is that when people go to the ZBA, there is confusion about the process,” particularly the role of neighborhood input.
“The way it’s supposed to work — and the way it does work — causes issues in the community,” he added. “Something is not functioning properly.”
NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Alan Jaffe at email@example.com.