Dialysis center zoning bill advances

Depending on how you look at it, today’s City Council hearing about a proposed dialysis center in Chestnut Hill is either an example of petty, job-killing NIMBYism or a conspiracy by corporate interests and politicians to rip away a citizen’s right to due process.

The bill at hand seems simple enough. Fresenius Medical Care is a company that wants to operate a dialysis center in a building on 10 E. Moreland Avenue, which is zoned for industrial uses. Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller introduced a bill in November that would rezone the area for commercial purposes, thus allowing Fresenius to open up shop and — here’s the important part — operate whenever it wants.

That’s where the Chestnut Hill Residents Association comes in. Ron Recko, president of the Residents Association, says neighbors are worried about late-night noise and traffic — and want it closed by 6 p.m.

Conversely, Fresenius wants to operate till 9 p.m., if demand calls for it.

The neighbors are calling for a compromise: Operate until 9 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and until 6 p.m. for the rest of the week. (The center would be closed on Sunday either way.)

“Give us peace and quiet three nights a week,” says Recko.

But when it comes down to it, this is about much more than hours. The Residents Association feels that they’re being steamrolled by a cadre of politicians, its rival the Chestnut Hill Community Association and a large corporation.

How this dispute happened

This dispute began in June, when the Zoning Board of Adjustment granted a zoning variance to Fresenius that allowed it to move into the building, but with a proviso that it be open until 9 p.m. only on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. That proviso solidified the compromise between the company and the Residents Association into law.

Come July, though, Fresenius attorney Carl Primavera asked the Zoning Board to remove the limits on operating hours, and Councilwoman Miller and Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger wrote letters in support of him. The Zoning Board acquiesced and removed the proviso, without holding a hearing on the change.

Two neighbors, Susan and Peter Burke, filed suit over the Zoning Board’s decision — and then waited for their day in court, which is scheduled for March 7, 2011.

But before that could happen, Councilwoman Miller introduced this bill, which would give the dialysis center the ability to remain open until 9 p.m. all days. The city’s Planning Commission voted in support of the bill last month.

“We feel as though the judicial process is being circumvented here,” says Recko.

Dialysis Center represents jobs

What the Residents Association views as a breakdown of democracy, others see as a way to prevent a good project from being stalled in court — all over 9 hours.

“It creates jobs at a time when Philadelphia is experiencing one of the highest unemployment rates in our history,” testified Kevin Dow, COO of the Philadelphia Department of Commerce, at today’s hearing.

The city Planning Commission, Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, a dialysis patient and the Chestnut Hill Community Association — all testified in support of the bill. Only Burke and the Residents Association stood against it.

“I see this [area] as a dead zone … turning into an attractive-looking building that will employ people,” said Councilman Frank DiCicco at the hearing. Referring to the neighbors’ complaints about late-night activity, he added, “I come from the position that we don’t live in Mayberry. We live in the city.”

Both Councilman DiCicco and Council President Anna Verna told Fresenius representatives that they’d be happy to have such a project in their districts.

CHRA vs. CHCA?

It was at this point, Fresenius attorney Primavera suggested that some of those opposed to the dialysis center have another motive. “[The Residents Association] wants to be against anything the Chestnut Community Association is for … that’s what’s really going on here,” he said. “It’s not about 3 hours. It’s about control and neighborhood politics.”

The Residents Association is made up of many CHCA members who became dissatisfied with the group, but have maintained that its opposition is related to concerns about traffic and noise that will result from the dialysis center.

As for the dialysis center bill, Council reported it favorably out of the Rules Committee today, and placed it on the calendar for a first reading. Usually, that would mean it’s a done deal. But not this time: On March 7, 2011, Judge Gary DiVito will hear arguments from the Burkes and the Zoning Board, opening this can of warms all over again.

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