The New Code: Big Changes for Zoning in Philadelphia

by Saul Ewing LLP
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Part One: An Overview

Philadelphia has been operating with an outdated clunker of a Zoning Code for many years. On August 22, 2012, that all changes, as Philadelphia gets a shiny New Zoning Code, its first comprehensive rewrite of the zoning and land use rules in over 50 years. To help you navigate the waters, we have prepared a five-part series with useful information on how things will change under the New Code. In this first segment, we provide a general overview of how the New Code works, and some of the biggest things you need to know about it.

  • Where can I find the New Code? You can find the entire text online here.

As a general matter, the New Code is intended to be more flexible, and easier to use, establishing clear rules and encouraging greater investment in the City. As a practical matter, however, we expect a somewhat chaotic initial transition period of at least six months or longer, as the Department of Licenses & Inspections ("L&I"), and other City agencies, begin implementing an entirely new set of rules. As the City sorts through uncertain language, the need for new policies or procedures, unanticipated consequences and unexpected glitches in the system, there will be delays and some amount of confusion. On August 22, 2012, a light switch will flip and every new Zoning and Use Application filed with L&I will be reviewed under the New Code. Expect delays ahead!

So how is the New Code different from the Old Code?

  1. A New Approach. The New Code is significantly shorter and more streamlined than the Old Code. The New Code makes extensive use of tables and illustrations, and the City promises that the online version will make navigation much easier by providing quick links to cross references and definitions. Under the Old Code, controls for a particular property could be spread throughout the Code in a maddening fashion. The New Code, however, cleanly separates various zoning controls, with Districts in one chapter, Uses in another chapter, and Dimensional Controls in another, using helpful tables and illustrations to assist with cross-references.
  2. Community Involvement and Civic Design Review. (Covered in Part Two of this Series) Under the Old Code, community associations played a large role, but the process was completely unregulated. Under the New Code, the role of community organizations is codified and regulated. To be a Registered Community Organization ("RCO"), a group must register annually with the City and provide organizational information such as geographic boundaries. For applications that require Civic Design Review ("CDR") or a hearing before the Zoning Board, the New Code requires written notice and documentation to be provided to all affected RCOs. The New Code also requires a single meeting with the RCO(s), but places a burden on the RCO(s) to schedule such a meeting within 45 days. In a significant departure from the Old Code, which had no design criteria, the New Code establishes a robust CDR process, which convenes the developer, the City and the community for a mandatory review proceeding which produces advisory design recommendations for certain larger-scale projects expected to impact the surrounding neighborhood.
  3. New Base Zoning Districts and Overlay Districts. (Covered in Part Three of this Series) The New Code has narrowed the overall number of Zoning Districts, created a few new Districts, and implemented a new, more intuitive naming system for Districts. Gone are R-10, C-5 and G-2. New Districts have names like RSA (for Residential Single-Family Attached), CMX (for Commercial Mixed-Use), and ICMX (for Industrial Commercial Mixed-Use). On August 22, 2012, every property in the City will automatically be switched to the new Zoning District that is closest to its former District. Conversion tables are provided in Chapter 400 of the New Code to ease the transition, and you can also type a property address into an online conversion map to determine the district under the New Code: http://citymaps.phila.gov/ZoningOverlayConversion/. Over the next several years, however, the City Planning Commission will be re-mapping the entire City, neighborhood by neighborhood. Under the Old Code, Overlay Districts were appended like band-aids in an ad-hoc fashion, forming an unwieldy and confusing web of controls. The New Code consolidates and streamlines things, creating three new "master" Overlays: one for Center City, one for neighborhood commercial districts, and one for neighborhood conservation areas.
  4. Use Categories. (Covered in Part Four of this Series) Under the Old Code, Uses were defined with great specificity, and a Use was prohibited if it was not expressly permitted under the Code. Since the Old Code was quite outdated, this gave rise to situations where many modern types of Uses were not permitted, and a Zoning Variance was required for a simple use like a neighborhood yoga studio. The New Code takes an entirely different approach, grouping individual Uses into general Use Categories and Subcategories. A series of tables aids with determination of which uses are permitted where. And a host of modern uses, such as urban agriculture, fitness centers and adult day care are now easily categorized and permitted in appropriate locations. The Use chapter of the New Code also addresses accessory structures, such as roof decks and solar collectors, that were previously unaddressed or unclear in the Old Code.
  5. Dimensional Controls and Parking. (Covered in Part Five of this Series) The dimensional controls under the Old Code are largely carried forward in the New Code, but with helpful tables and illustrations. Some changes have been made to lessen the need for variances, such as increasing the height limit for townhomes to a modern 38' rather than the previous 35' limit. The New Code also introduces the concept of contextual standards (based on other adjacent structures, lot size, etc.) in certain Rowhome neighborhoods, to encourage visual consistency. Also, certain areas will now have form and design controls, another new concept introduced by the New Code. And the entire system for Floor Area Ratio ("FAR") bonuses has been re-imagined, to provide greater flexibility and accessibility, with bonuses now available on an a la carte basis, and new bonuses available for such things as mixed-income housing and green building certification. Finally, new parking controls are updated from the Old Code, with less parking required, and with adjustments available for auto-share parking spaces, reduced need populations, proximity to transit and provision of bike parking. New design and landscaping controls apply to parking garages and surface parking lots.
  6. Miscellaneous. The Code is peppered with countless other changes, big and small. For example, you will for the first time – and for a substantial fee – be able to request an official interpretation from L&I to answer a question on an unclear provision in the New Code. To be consistent with other Pennsylvania municipalities, the New Code replaces the former concepts of "Certificated Uses" and "Special Use Permits" with the more familiar concept of "Special Exceptions." The New Code also more clearly outlines Zoning Board procedures, such as requiring the Board to issue written decisions with reasons for the decisions, and outlining the relationship of private agreements to Zoning Board decisions. The New Code also now requires that Zoning Permits must be posted at the property for 30 days.

As we approach August 22, 2012, buckle your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy ride for a while. In the meantime, follow us for the next several weeks as we delve into some key sections of the Code in greater detail.

Coming Soon:
Part Two: Community Involvement and Civic Design Review
Part Three: Base Districts and Overlays
Part Four: Use Categories
Part Five: Dimensional Controls and Parking

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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