Zoners frustrate community interests
By: Jennifer A. Katz January 04, 2001
Cohesiveness is focus of 21st Ward meeting
Recent issues and mounting frustrations brought out representatives from ten of the nineteen civic groups in the 21st Ward at the Community Council's general meeting on Dec. 21.
Debra Valenti-Epstien and John Hagarty of Roxborough Law Office lead the meeting, reviewing a litany of zoning board decisions that ignored the input of the various civic groups.
"Looking at this list it seems as though the community organizations can't get any attention until they get to the state level," said Valenti-Epstien, venting her frustration.
At the heart of the issue is the zoning board of adjustments' (ZBA) seeming disinterest in the codes and regulations that bind them, according to the consensus of the meeting's attendees.
In the city of Philadelphia, zoning variances are issued when there is a compelling reason that a person or business can prove they plan to use a property in a different vein than currently intended, according to Valenti-Epstein.
For example, a section of the city may be deemed residential that happens to also house a warehouse that was pre-owned and thus does not conform with the new zoning standard. A variance would be issued in that case because the owner of the warehouse could legitimately argue that the facility could not be used as a home creating a compelling hardship for the owner if he were to attempt to conform to the standards.
"The problem is that all of these variances that are being given out do not meet any hardship standard," said Valenti-Epstein.
Hagarty suggested that the zoning board is a vehicle for self-serving political hangers-on.
"The people who sit on the zoning board have their own interests or the interest of the person who appointed them to advance," proffered Hagarty.
"We are talking about an unbridled slope toward developers," he continued, "When you put all of that in the pot, community groups get the short end of the stick."
Hagarty went on to recommend to the civic leaders who gathered four days before Christmas that the groups within the 21st ward could be more effective if they came together to support the individual actions that keep failing in front of the ZBA.
Valenti-Epstein, who had prepared a list of cases that were fought and lost before the zoning board, reminded the group that the one case in which a civic group prevailed involved the support of many of the other civic groups in the 21st ward.
Hagarty noted that in the case of NPA and neighbors vs. American Tower, where the community opposed putting a tower on Port Royal Ave. and won, hundreds of letters of support were gathered and presented to the zoning board.
Chip Roller, president of Wissahickon Interested Citizens Association, recounted his group's crusade to convince then Councilman John Street, of the bias the ZBA had shown for developers.
After reviewing the history of ZBA decisions in the area, Roller and his colleagues found that in 92% of the cases, the ZBA decided in favor of the developer over the community objections.
Street pledged to make the ZBA more sensitive and Roller feels that the new zoning board has shown more sympathy with issues concerning Wissahickon such as with the parking pad issue.
Valenti-Epstein was quick to point out that the new board has also approved more development in Roxborough against the wishes of the residents.
That statement prompted Ray Johnston, president of the 21st Ward Community Council, to express his own frustration.
"Whether the case is large or small it should be decided fairly," stated Johnston.
"The same standard should be applied," agreed Valenti-Epstein.
Looking for ways to improve the cohesion among the civic groups in the 21st ward, Hagarty and Valenti-Epstein referred frequently to the Chestnut Hill Community Association citing their financial and political resources but also focusing on their organizational abilities.
Using an application form that the Upper Roxborough Civic Association (UPCA) adopted in handling variance and development issues, the lawyers explained that the document was modeled on one adopted by the Chestnut Hill group and gives the UPCA an edge in legal matters with developers.
Council Michael Nutter supports the application, Turino said, and would like to see it become mandatory in his district.
Bob Turino, president of UPCA also remarked that the fee that accompanies the application helps subsidize the legal fees that litigation incurs.
And money, agreed everyone, is one the most difficult obstacles to overcome.
Valenti-Epstein informed the attendees that there are monetary benefits when a civic group becomes involved in a dispute. A civic group is entitled to the notes of testimony from a zoning board hearing free upon appeal of the decision whereas an individual is not, she explained.
The group returned time and again to the need for more support and communication amongst the civics for each other and the 21st ward council.
Valenti-Epstein offered to use the Roxborough Law Office web site as a posting board for all ZBA decisions including how the members voted and any letters or testimony in opposition that were presented from the civic groups during the hearings.
Kathy Tomosky proposed that the council create an Ethics Commission that could serve as an impartial body to skirt favoritism within the ward. As part of the commission a surcharge would be requested from the civic groups which would form a "war chest" that also could be used to fight these battles, suggested Tomosky.
As the attendees searched for ideas to improve the network of communication in the ward, Joe Walker, president of Residents of Shawmont Valley, emphasized the commitment being shown by those present.
"Why are we here four days before Christmas when we could be home with our families?" Walker asked the crowd rhetorically, "Because we live in a good neighborhood that we value."
After quietly listening to the group, John Teague, a Manayunk resident and activist responded to the concerns and issues on the agenda with a different perspective.
"I look at this list and I see all of the times we've lost with the ZBA," began Teague, "And I hear people saying they want to continue to fight. I say it's time to change the way we fight.
"In Manayunk we got a mini sub-station, ten more officers, a cop that walks Cresson St."
Teague went on to outline the issues he would like to see receive "equal time" from the ward as a whole.
"Crime is going to be the biggest issue in the 21st ward. We need to work for attainable goals that will maintain the neighborhoods," stressed Teague.
Valenti-Epstein agreed that a "quid pro quo" attitude could be successful in winning some of the battles in the war for control over the quality of life in the neighborhoods.
"The idea is, give us something for what's been taken," she said, summing up Teague's proposition.
Council president Johnston added that he was not against development, just the lack of enforcement of the codes.
"We are not anti-developers," he concluded, "We would just like to see the rules and regulations, that are in place to preserve our standards for living, enforced."

ŠThe Review 2001