Just what I always wanted?

If Chestnut Hill news had a theme this year, it would be zoning debate. From the Fresenius dialysis center at Winston Road and Moreland Avenue to the Green Woods Charter School proposal for Chestnut Hill Avenue to the Magarity Ford site and on up to Chestnut Hill College, Chestnut Hill has seen some pretty big disputes about how best to develop property.

Last week, City Council passed new zoning legislation that will dramatically change the way developers address zoning and the way in which civic associations have a voice in the process.

The latter part of that last sentence has been a cause for alarm in Chestnut Hill for nearly two years now. The worry is that the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s process will be put in jeopardy.

The CHCA’s current process uses the Zoning Board of Adjustment’s variance process as leverage. Whenever a developer or property owner needs a variance, he or she is told to solicit the local civic association for support.

The CHCA has used that practice to require all variance applicants to submit to its review process, which includes the Development Review Committee, the Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee, Traffic Transportation and Parking, Aesthetics and a Historic District Advisory Committee that is part of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society.

That process allows the CHCA to give everything from major projects to fence installations a thorough vetting and allows neighbors to have a say, too. It also slows down the average application, as the process requires at the very least one month of review, but often takes two.

Now that the code has been approved – though it will not take effect for eight months, meaning there is an opportunity still for tweaks – the old tried and true  CHCA process will likely have to change. And by change, the CHCA is likely to lose some control of the process and have less leverage.

Although many in the CHCA have expressed concern about the erosion of the process, perhaps it’s not the worst thing to happen to the CHCA.

First, to be clear, although the CHCA process is often long and seems at times infuriatingly redundant, the people who make up the CHCA’s committees, particularly the LUPZ, are a group of dedicated and professional architects that provide the kind of service you’d have to pay millions to get. The amount of work-hours put in and the professionalism by volunteers like Joyce Lenhardt and Larry McEwen is remarkable. I can’t imagine any community that has a more capable group of people perusing its zoning applications.

The process of reviewing zoning, however, puts the CHCA and its committee volunteers in the interesting dilemma of acting like government, which is not the most enviable position to be in, especially when the decisions impact your near neighbors. The opinions of the LUPZ, DRC and CHCA are advisory, but they carry weight. And they also carry the likelihood that you’ll upset or alienate a group of people that you would also very much like to participate through CHCA membership.

A case in point is the recent Bowman Properties/Magarity Ford decision. The CHCA appears to have made the best overall planning decision. The investment Bowman is putting into the site is larger than anything you could reasonably hope to attract to the property. Nearly every professional planner I’ve spoken to says the project is the right move. It might not be perfect, but it’s a solid planning decision that makes sense for the community.

In making that decision, however – whether it’s right or wrong – the CHCA is left to deal with the fact that it sided against 600 Hillers who signed a petition in opposition to the project. That’s 600 Hillers who may be a harder sell to join the CHCA or participate in its events.

There’s no question that the zoning process of the CHCA has been a big net gain for Chestnut Hill. It’s architects, planners and other volunteers have spent countless hours working to manage progress and preserve the neighborhood’s character at the same time. Yet, more and more, the CHCA has been put in the no-win position of needing to take a side. It doesn’t matter what side it takes – right or wrong – every time it takes a side it has to face a group of people upset by the decision.

Perhaps the new zoning code will take a lot of that decision-making power away from the CHCA and centralize zoning decisions downtown.

Perhaps that won’t be the worst thing that’s ever happened to the CHCA.

Pete Mazzaccaro

  • MikeG

    The 600 Hillers were NOT opposed to development of this property. The petition they signed opposed the owner’s current overly dense development plan and the spot-zoning process – the rezoning of this property without the consent of or consideration for the legitimate concerns of the hundreds of residents and property owners that live nearby. The petition signed by the people of Chestnut Hill expresses our opposition to the spot-zoning bills the owner wishes to have signed by Mayor Nutter. The owner did not follow CHCA processes and never presented (let alone obtained) signatures from “near-neighbors” in support of his spot-zoning plan or his development plan generally. He did not it appears because he had our council person prepared to present his private zoning bill to council INSTEAD. Had the DRC and/or the CHCA given any consideration to the 600+ residents of the Chestnut Hill community that were opposed to the spot-zoning process pursued by the owner, one might be able to report that the CHCA’s zoning process “worked” in this situation. But the 600+ residents of this neighborhood were irrelevant in this process. Perhaps that is because the owner the zoning bills were hanging over everyone’s heads – not exactly a fair playing field for real community negotiation. The CHCA was put in an awful position by the owner here for sure. But whatever the reason, when 600+ Hillers are ignored the way they have been here, you cannot say the process worked. The owner should return to real negotiations with the neighbors to address their legitimate concerns about the density of this project. And do so in good faith.

    And perhaps there should be a new sub-committee of the CHCA that shares equal weight and represents solely the interests of Chestnut Hill’s home owners and residents.

    • Paul H.

      I couldn’t agree more. The proposed plan is a monstrosity that is out of context with our neighborhood. The developer’s threats of putting in a Walgreen’s at this site if the near neighbors continued to express opposition to the height and density of his project were particularly troublesome. Especially in light of the childish shenanigans he pulled a few years ago with the large posters in his numerous vacant storefronts announcing the perfect location for a dollar store, check cashing store or cell phone shop. Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter.