Inquirer Editorial: Zoning code attacked before its ink is even dry

Jannie Blackwell
Jannie Blackwell
Posted: December 17, 2012

Philadelphia finally gets a modern zoning code with more reasonable rules for developers and residents alike, and here comes City Council trying to take the town back to the past.

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell is pushing legislation that would allow Council's 10 district members to decide how many meetings a developer must have with community groups to get residents' input on a project.

While not empowering communities any more than they already are under the new code, Blackwell's bill would break a negotiated promise to developers to limit the number of required meetings because they are expensive. Developers must pay lawyers, planners, and other experts to attend.

The new code requires one community meeting, which should be more than enough, if sufficient effort is made to make sure everyone affected by a proposed development knows about it.

Blackwell's bill would also loosen the definition of a "community group," which again sounds like a good idea, but in reality would open the door for dummy organizations to be formed by developers or their foes to fake community sentiment for or against a project.

Give Blackwell points for wanting to ensure good development in her West Philadelphia district, but her bill would hurt her constituents more than help. It would take the city back to the bad old days when whom you know - especially if it was a Council member - ruled development. That created an unpredictable, and sometimes corrupt, environment.

A separate zoning bill, introduced by Councilman Brian O'Neill, is also problematic in that it would burden small businesses with unnecessary restrictions. For example, the revised legislation would now permit ice cream shops, but it still discourages community gardens.

Both Blackwell's and O'Neill's bills are counterproductive at a time when the city is trying to shed onerous rules that cost it businesses and jobs. Their moves are particularly disturbing when you consider the large role Council played in writing the new code that they want to undermine.

Council had seats on the commission that developed the code, which over four years held countless public meetings - a process that cost $2 million. It's wrong for some Council members to ignore that exhaustive effort just so they can retain control over development in their districts. They need to instead consider the entire city's needs, and give the code time to work before making changes.

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