Rules Committee shuffles amendments, recommends zoning code ‘clean-up’ bill

City Council’s Committee on Rules voted Wednesday morning to recommend a bill that amends various provisions of the new zoning code, which is scheduled to take effect August 22. The bill, No. 120431, went through countless iterations since its introduction on May 17; its scheduled hearing on Tuesday the 12th was paused in the middle so Council and the Commission could negotiate, and continued Wednesday.  On Wednesday evening, in fact, the text of the bill had still not been finalized and posted. The bill will get a first reading at City Council Thursday morning, June 14th.

The original version of the bill, as introduced by Councilmen Darrell Clarke and Curtis Jones, Jr., amended the zoning code “by revising and clarifying certain provision and making technical changes …” Most of those changes were made members of the Planning Commission who’d been involved in crafting the original document passed by City Council last December. Many of them were spelling and grammar corrections and corrections to various maps and tables, hence their classification as “technical changes.”

The week after the first “clean-up” bill was introduced, Councilmen Bobby Henon and Bill Green introduced a bill containing another set of amendments. These amendments shortened the timeline for Civic Design Review, changed the applicability date of pending ordinances, adjusted the “purposes” for the code’s 50-foot stream buffers to remove references to waterways other than drinking-water sources, and removed the upper limit on parking spaces allowed in development projects.

The amendment related to stream buffers had been advocated by Craig Schelter in Planning Commission meetings as pushback against one of the “technical” amendments introduced in the original bill, which expanded the purpose of stream buffers. Schelter said the amendment was a matter of policy, rather than a technical change, and that it went beyond the intention of the code passed by Council. Schelter also suggested that the stream buffer would prevent industrial businesses on waterfronts from operating normally.

Alan Greenberger said that was a bogus claim.

“Common sense tells you that we’re not interested in a stream buffer and a trail that gets in the way of an industrial use,” Greenberger said, after . “That’s just ridiculous.”

He added, “The stream buffer in general: this is sound environmental policy that will not impact businesses and their ability to be on the waterfront, and it will certainly not impact businesses that have an industrial use that relates to the use of the waterfront as an access point. Those are always going to be allowed on industrially zoned land.”

The Henon/Green bill was introduced too late to get its own hearing and be voted on by Council before its summer recess, so it was never advertised. Instead, it was inserted as an amendment to the original zoning clean-up bill so it could be heard by a Committee at the same time.

That hearing, which began Tuesday morning, turned contentious. Beyond the issue of the stream buffers, Council members argued with the Commission over a code provision which capped the maximum amount of parking allowed on a given project. The maximum parking allotment was written into the code to “Encourage the efficient use of land by avoiding excessive amounts of land being devoted to parking and thus unavailable for other productive uses.”

Councilman Jim Kenney questioned why the provision was necessary, saying he couldn’t imagine a developer wanting to devote any more land than necessary to parking. Alan Greenberger said that it is a fairly common practice for certain types of development—shopping centers, for example—when a developer wants to give the impression that there is always parking available. Councilman Kenney asked how the Committee could be certain that practice actually takes place without it being written down somewhere. Greenberger said he didn’t have it written down.

“Council was convinced that [removing the maximum parking allotment] was necessary, and that it would not create an overbuilding of parking spaces, because the market forces would basically prevail in determining how much parking is provided,” said Deputy Commission Director Eva Gladstein Wednesday morning, explaining that the cap had been removed from the bill.

Asked whether she believed market forces would in fact set an appropriate limit on land use for parking, Gladstein said, “We didn’t believe it was worth holding up these amendments to the bill to fight the battle.” Gladstein said she was surprised by some of  the amendments introduced by Council, since none were mentioned in its list of forty amendments sent to the Zoning Code Commission last fall. She said the Planning Commission and other city agencies would monitor the effect of the unlimited parking allotment and other provisions as the code is implemented.

Several times on Tuesday morning, the Committee butted heads with the Commission. Committee members worried that the Commission’s changes were in fact not technical but substantive, and said they wanted more time to look over them. Eventually, Committee Chairman William Greenlee decided to continue the hearing until Wednesday morning, in the hopes that Council and the Commission could agree on amendments to put forward.

Wednesday morning’s hearing lasted barely ten minutes. Overnight, the Commission’s “clean-up” changes had been written out of the “clean-up” bill. At the time of its passage, the bill contained not only Henon’s and Green’s amendments, which hadn’t been introduced in time to get their own hearing, but also an amendment from Councilman Squilla continuing the Central Delaware Overlay, and one from Councilman O’Neill which stipulates that Commission-prepared zoning code interpretations are non-binding unless approved by Council ordinance.

The Committee voted unanimously to give the bill a favorable recommendation.  

Asked whether the code going into effect without all the clean-up amendments could allow developers to take improper advantage of the situation, Alan Greenberger said, “It’s a possibility. It depends how many people are out there looking to drive a giant wedge through a small loophole.”

Contact the reporter at jaredbrey@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @jaredbrey

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