Source of City Council dispute over protecting streams still unclear

Posted: October 16, 2012

Nearly two weeks after environmentalists sounded the alarm about a looming fight in City Council over protection of city streams, the very sources of the conflict remain unclear.

Councilman Bill Green said earlier this month that unnamed Council members, representing some of the city's 10 Councilmanic districts, had objected to a proposed 50-foot buffer along streams - basically every natural waterway except the Schuylkill and Delaware River.

But in subsequent interviews with all 10 District Council members or their staffs, none raised concerns that the 50-foot setback was too large, or admitted to previously expressing doubts, further enshrouding Green's motives in mystery.

Only Councilman Bobby Henon said he hadn't made up his mind, saying he needed to study the issue further. Henon's district includes the Frankford and Tacony Creeks, each in heavily developed areas. Henon said Thursday he planned to meet with city Water Department officials in coming days.

Environmentalists hoped the battle they warned about earlier this month and began to marshal support for could be avoided.

Andrew Sharp, outreach coordinator for the advocacy group Penn Future, said environmentalists had been making the rounds with Council members, many of whom "understand how critical it is to protect" the city's streams and creeks, which are considered "impaired" by pollution.

"We're hopeful that we can - once and for all - put to rest any discussion of reducing the 50-foot setbacks," Sharp said.

The 50-foot buffers should have gone into effect in August as part of the zoning code reform, years in the making, that rewrote the rule book for building in the city. But in the spring, Henon and Green introduced a number of amendments that ultimately delayed the implementation.

One of their amendments required Council to approve a hydrology map of rivers and streams before the buffers could go into effect.

Over the summer, a working group of builders, environmentalists, Council staffers, and administration officials discussed the issue.

The group emerged with what environmentalists and the administration described as a consensus for 50-foot setbacks along rivers and streams, but with concessions for certain types of development along the rivers.

Council staffers then drafted a bill to reflect the working group's discussions, including a hydrology map. A committee hearing on that bill has been set for Oct. 31.

Earlier this month, environmentalists began raising concerns that Green planned to introduce an amendment to reduce the stream buffer to 25 feet.

Any amendments to reduce the size of the stream buffer likely would be introduced during the committee hearing.

Green, one of seven at-large representatives on the 17-member City Council, said Friday he didn't know what, if anything, he would propose at the hearing. But he said despite what the district Council members said, at least one still had concerns about a 50-foot buffer.

"They must not want any attention out of it," Green said.

He said he could not point to a property where a 50-foot setback would have an adverse effect versus a 25-foot setback - in other words, an example of what might be at the heart of a district Council member's objection.

But he said there were a number of other issues with the bill that needed to be worked out, such as how buildings already situated in a 50-foot buffer would be treated, and whether the setbacks would apply to streams routed underground.

He said businesses along Main Street in Manayunk, for example, could be within 50 feet of the Manayunk Canal. Green said he did not want the setback to accidentally prevent those businesses from expanding.

"It's just not clear to me that the people who have these properties are aware of that," he said.

Sharp also said environmentalists would continue to monitor the legislation.

"Nothing is settled until a bill is passed," he said.

Contact Troy Graham at 215-854-2730,, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

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