No dull moments for zoning board

Posted: April 05, 2013

It is almost a year since Philadelphia's new zoning code became law. After 50 years the code has been simplified, clarified, and modernized. A huge amount of work was done by our political leadership and dedicated citizens. And no one will miss the old code. But it did provide for unforgettable moments that may never be repeated.

As a member of the Zoning Board of Adjustment working with the former code, I heard and read a lot about hotel development in Center City, billboards on Interstate 95, cellular towers sprouting inside and outside the "antenna farm" in Roxborough, and numerous other requests for homes, swimming pools, decks, signs, and fences.

In Robert Frost's famous poem, "Mending Wall," he questions whether fences make good neighbors. I would have to agree.

How about an eight-foot fence that blocks light to a neighbor's property? Or consider a fence of less height that completely blocks visibility for children going to school. What about the driver who can't see the kids or other cars because a fence obscures the view?

One particularly odd "fence" case involved two Philadelphia rowhomes where the homeowners shared a set of steps. The fence, which was made of solid wood, made moving a large object in or out of either house an impossible task.

Pets were a recurring problem for the zoning board, and I don't mean cats and dogs, which were sometimes an issue. I am talking pigeons, pot-bellied pigs, and emus, all of which have created problems for city dwellers and memorable moments at the board.

Unusual pets and domesticated animals in residences are not regulated in the new code, but they will be regulated by other codes and ordinances. For example, the health code will "kick" in, as will noise ordinances.

Formerly, when asked why he had erected a huge pigeon coop in his small back yard, the applicant seeking to have it legalized responded, "I like the taste. They are cheap and delicious."

The pot-bellied pig turned out to be blind and cute - in a piggy way. However, the obvious problems with a full-grown pot-bellied pig in the front yard of a residential neighborhood were too much to ignore.

The emus were kept as pets by another Philadelphian because "they eat the ticks off the other animals I have." The applicant accompanied his appeal with diagrams and information about the beneficial aspects of emus. (I learned that emus don't fly, and can grow to six feet, with legs so strong they can break heavy wire fencing.) However, these interesting qualities were not sufficient to appease the neighbors next door, who were living with dirt, noise, feathers, and odors.

And then there were the "show and tell" cases.

Occasionally, in order to demonstrate a point, someone appearing before the board would bring samples as evidence. I saw used condoms and dirty needles, as well as thongs (for men) and pasties (for women). There was no room in the files to store this evidence, but the words were transcribed for the record. The appeals must have made for a good laugh.

With the new zoning code in place I suspect that many of these types of cases are no longer heard by the board. But, sometimes, two sides to a story are just too good to miss.

Susan Jaffe served on the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment for 14 years, as a board member and chairwoman. E-mail her at

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