Get Ready for Zoning Zooms

(ZBA Chair Frank DiCicco)

One trend we’ve been watching throughout the pandemic has been the race to move more government functions and processes into the virtual space, and in particular, the emerging practices around virtual public engagement, which every agency is inventing on the fly.

Big public forums like City Council hearings, the SEPTA fare hearings, and lots of agency hearings are now happening through WebEx and Zoom meetings that people can tune into remotely rather than having to go downtown to see in-person.

One meeting-heavy area of government activity is the zoning variance process—used for about a quarter of building applications—where people who want to build something that doesn’t comply exactly with the zoning code need to first have a neighborhood hearing, and then a public hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA.)

If the project is large or significant enough, it may also be required to partake in up to two Civic Design Review hearings in addition. Or if some aspect of the project falls under the purview of the Art Commission or the Historical Commission, it could have to make a stop there too.

By now the Planning Commission, Civic Design Review, the Art Commission, and the Historical Commission are all back in operation, but to date, the Zoning Board of Adjustment has remained closed indefinitely, with it left up in the air whether they would even hold virtual hearings at all, or wait until in-person meetings became possible again. For anyone who’s ever attended a Zoning Board hearing, the room is very narrow, and it would be irresponsible to have a lot of people crowding in there to froth about zoning in the middle of a pandemic. ZBA Chair Frank DiCicco is said to be looking all over for large courtrooms to host in-person hearings.

With the ZBA not scheduling any virtual hearings, that’s backed up the whole process and has meant that the Registered Community Organization (RCO) meetings that are required to precede the ZBA hearings also haven’t been getting scheduled. Variance applications are still getting filed, though, via the new eClipse online permit application system that went live in March, so projects are sitting in the pipeline, but not moving forward yet.

That is, until this week when the Zoning Board and the Planning Commission both passed emergency regulations aimed at virtually restarting both ZBA hearings and the RCO meetings that precede them. The new rules will be in effect through September 20th, and could be extended depending on what’s happening.

  • Any zoning appeals or permits requiring Civic Design Review that were filed and assigned a Registered Community Organization before March 16th, whose 45 day period to conduct a meeting expired during the COVID shutdown, will have an additional 45 days from June 17th (when regulations were accepted by Records) to host an RCO meeting.
  • Those appeals who received notice and whose 45 days expired before March 16th, should be meeting with RCOs as soon as possible if they did not do so before the shutdown.
  • Applicants that filed on or after March 16th and/or haven’t been assigned an RCO will have 45 days to meet once our RCO notice goes out.
  • RCOs who are not able to host a meeting should notify the Planning Commission, your District Council office, and the Board before the hearing or meeting

Everyone at the City has trod very lightly so far around the subject of what to expect from the Registered Community Organizations—advisory-only volunteer groups tasked with hosting zoning meetings for the city—who vary in technological capabilities or community Internet access, which is a challenge for moving everything to virtual meetings. Officials had been waiting on the results of a survey conducted by the Planning Commission of RCO leaders about their confidence in handling virtual zoning meetings. The results are now in, and what Planning learned was that about half of the RCOs say they’re capable of hosting virtual meetings with no help, about a quarter say they could do it with some assistance, and another quarter reported they either couldn’t do it or didn’t want to.

Projects requiring Civic Design Review, which went live the week of June 9th, are now being scheduled for those meetings, and the Zoning Board of Adjustment is about to resume with virtual hearings on the week of July 13th. The ZBA will start with some applications that have been delayed since the stay-at-home order went into effect in mid-March, and that will be the first tranche scheduled for RCO meetings, unless the cases were heard already before the shutdown. They’ll then start to work through the backlog of cases that have been piling up in eClipse, with hearings three days a week. 

Already a few RCOs have been hosting virtual hearings for some projects that were scheduled for ZBA hearing dates, so the gears are starting to turn. Center City Residents Association has hosted at least two zoning Zooms so far, and South Broad Street Neighborhood Association has held one. Queen Village Neighbors Association just this week also held a virtual zoning meeting about classroom trailers for outside of Meredith Elementary—a reminder that there’s more than just housing in the pipeline. Daycares also will need ZBA approval, as they require a special exception, or a harder-to-get variance in places where Councilmembers have decided to ban them.

One thing that’s still a little unclear is who makes the call about what to do when an RCO is not able to hold a meeting or is unwilling to hold one prior to the ZBA hearing. The ZBA’s regulations say they will defer to the Planning Commission’s recommendation, but also to the District City Councilperson, or to their own sense of things.

The Board shall defer to the recommendation of the Commission regarding the treatment of hearings where a Registered Community Organization has been unable to meet in a virtual setting using telecommunications technology during the Affected Period, unless the District Councilperson objects or if the Board finds that the recommendation imposes an undue burden upon the applicant or upon other persons or entities, including the RCO(s).”

Here’s our best guess at the flow chart based on this description. 

Are there any interesting local stories in your neighborhood resulting from these changes? Is your neighborhood RCO hosting virtual meetings, whether about zoning or anything else? Keep an eye out over the next few weeks and send us tips about what you’re seeing. The Planning Commission released a document for emerging virtual meeting practices for community groups that can be found here.

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