by Wesley Ratko

A measure put forth last month by City Council members Mark Squilla and Brian O’Neill to amend the city’s zoning code to allow for parking in the front yard setback of residential properties citywide was tabled at the last minute and not voted on. But the bill, 130699-A, has been amended in a manner that Joyce Lenhardt, a member of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee, called “even worse.”

The amended bill is scheduled to be voted on for final passage by City Council next week.

If approved, the amended bill would add a sentence to the zoning code to allow driveways in the front, side or rear yards of homes on property ordinarily required to remain undeveloped.

While this appears to permit parking in the front yards of all homes in Philadelphia, the language and its technical application are vague. While the impact of this change appears significant enough to incite worry from LUPZ members, its full impact remains unknown.

That possibility worried the LUPZ, and several members urged that another letter signed by CHCA board president Brien Tilley be sent through Councilwoman Cindy Bass’s office, encouraging the bill to be opposed or, short of that, amended to include a measure that would exempt Chestnut Hill from being impacted.

“It seems so uniquely bad,” Landis said. “We should just oppose it.”

He said that the impact of the amendment would be a sharp rise in visual blight and a resultant decrease in property values throughout the city.

In spite of the committee’s unified opposition to the bill, several members of LUPZ remained unsure about what the specific impact the amended zoning language would really have, particularly since another provision of the zoning code directly contradicts the line being added.

“What does it do?” Lenhardt asked, after much discussion. “Part B of any letter we send should state that if it passes we want to be excluded.”

Landis suggested a “full court press” to the hearing in City Council chambers and testify against it. “If we testify at the vote that this is a bad idea, would it matter?”

Landis agreed to draft language for another letter to city council that would state the CHCA’s opposition to the zoning change, recognize that there are areas of the city where parking in front of a residence is needed, and ask for more time to draft language that is more sensitive to the varying character of the city’s many neighborhoods. Lenhardt also asked for clarification on the bill’s language.

Fence variance

The Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee voted to support the appeal of an L&I order to remove a 6 foot high fence at 401 E. Willow Grove Avenue because it violates the zoning code for being too high and not partially see-through.

The property owner, Laura Stanton, received a violation notice from the city last week that her new fence is both too high and too solid. Fences are required to be no taller than four feet and be at least 50 percent opaque. Stanton told the committee that the new fence is an exact replacement of the previous fence, which was erected in 2005. Stanton said an identical fence has been on the property since 1991 when she bought the house.

Community Manager Celeste Hardester briefed the committee on the application and said that while the penalty for this violation is uncertain, no additional information was available given the inspector for L&I’s North District has been out all week.

Stanton was present Thursday night to plead her case and answer questions. She repeatedly admitted fault, saying she never sought to secure the necessary permit to construct the fence even though the agreement with the contractor – Everlasting Fence of Glenside – stated she was required to do so.

She came to LUPZ seeking support for a variance that would allow her to keep the fence, saying that the location of her property on a major street, adjacent to a bus stop, and across the street from a busy parking lot, warrant the need for a taller, less see-through fence. She says her situation is different than what is intended by the ordinance

“I’m feeling kind of in a bind,” Stanton said.

“This isn’t the first time something like this has happened,” Joyce Lenhardt said.

Committee member John Landis was uncomfortable taking a position on the issue either way, saying the presence of the fence and its violation of the zoning code was not a significant community issue.

“I don’t want to be a busybody,” he said. “This doesn’t rise to a level that requires our input.” He was the only member of the committee to vote against supporting the variance.

Larry McEwen said that a 6 foot high fence has never been allowed in the front of a house in Chestnut Hill. “A 6 foot high fence makes a good hiding place for a burglar,” he said, adding that burglary remains an issue in Chestnut Hill. He also said that such a fence is a visual impediment.

Committee Member Jean McCoubrey added to that, noting that the location of the property on the corner presented sight distance issues for drivers and their need to see around the corner. McCoubrey said she is sympathetic to the need for a solid fence given the proximity to SEPTA’s Route 77 bus line and the busy parking lot across Willow Grove Avenue but the safety issue needs to be considered.

Landis said he likes the zoning ordinance and the limits it imposes and didn’t want to undermine it by supporting a variance. Ultimately, he refused to take a position.

Committee member Joyce Lenhardt disagreed, saying a position from the LUPZ was necessary.

Committee member John Haak suggested a compromise that ultimately became part of the language approved for a letter of support. Because the property is a corner lot at the northwest corner of E. Willow Grove and Crittenden Street,

Haak suggested the fence be maintained as-is along Crittenden, but downsized to four feet with 50% opacity along E. Willow Grove. Where the fence rounds the corner, Haak suggested a taper be provided to avoid a sudden contrast between high and low fence. The committee agreed and voted to approve that support language.