Striking a balance on zoning

Opinion January 9, 2013 5 Comments

by Pete Mazzaccaro 

This week we carry a follow-up story on the zoning request by the owners of Herbiary to run classes out of a converted garage at 133 E. Mermaid Lane. The classes, or “herbal consultations” as they’ve been called by Herbiary’s owners, are small affairs that bring a dozen or more people to the garage.

Near neighbors of the E. Mermaid Lane property, on a residential section of the street across from United Cerebral Palsy and the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting, are understandably less than thrilled about a business in the middle of their block – one that no doubt will bring more people to park on what is already a relatively crowded street. And, as neighbors have said, it brings crowds, however small, too near to their back yards, disrupting their privacy.

This issue, like so many others in Chestnut Hill, demonstrates just how tough a job it is to strike a balance in Chestnut Hill between those business concerns that all would agree are vital to the longterm welfare and vitality of the neighborhood, and the rights of residents who are no less important not only to the neighborhood’s vitality but to the businesses themselves. Study after study has shown that most businesses draw their customers from within five miles.

Thus the Chestnut Hill Community Association and its committees that deal with zoning issues – the Development Review Committee and the Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee – are routinely put in the tough position of playing the role of arbiter when these interests collide, which they routinely do.

A while back, when it looked like the CHCA very well might lose all of its zoning clout in new zoning rules passed last year by the city, I wrote in this space that I thought that it would be to the association’s benefit. It would no longer need to play the role of arbiter, in which one party or another will invariably feel aggrieved and likely not think well of the CHCA’s role in the decision making. As fair as the LUPZ and DRC are, in the end they must decide, and often that decision will rankle one of the parties.

The CHCA has been knocked for being pro business. Some have said the CHCA should, instead, advocate for residents no matter what – a safeguard, so to speak, against encroaching commercial interests.

I think there’s a pretty fair argument to be made for that model. In fact, I’m sure many would say: “Yeah. Why not? There are other organizations that advocate for businesses. Residents could use a champion.”

Of course as popular as that might be with residents in every corner of the neighborhood, it would no doubt fuel the usual NIMBYism that would run nearly unchecked. It’s doubtful that the CHCA would retain any influence over zoning matters if it took a one-sided path of advocacy. Businesses would know they wouldn’t get a fair hearing and avoid the CHCA altogether. It would probably do even more to split residents and the business community.

So, the balancing act is a tough one, and maybe it’s a necessary one. It’s not a proposition to gain popularity for the CHCA, but it does help the organization to have a say in neighborhood zoning, even if that say has been reduced somewhat by the new rules. The LUPZ suggested a compromise for Herbiary that would keep classes from meeting after business hours. It seems a reasonable compromise. About the best balancing act you could hope for.

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  • Tracy

    Your posit: “Some have said the CHCA should, instead, advocate for residents no matter what” is crazy… Why do some people think that “community” is an interchangeable term with “residents” as though schools, institutions, and businesses are predatory anathemas or as you put it: “encroaching commercial interests”…. Why also would a person want to live in 19118 if their disposition is better suited for a suburban gated development of McMansions… I think the balance is a given here and a good one…

  • Bill

    More importantly, you operate under the false premise that the “residents” speak with one voice. The reality of most of the zoning battles of the last few years is that the CHCA is caught between competing groups of residents. In the cases of CH College, Good Food Market, Green Woods Charter and others, “residents” lined up both for and against (generally a few near neighbors against and a larger group of neighborhood wide folks for). Where, under your proposal, would the CHCA fall?

    • http://profiles.google.com/pmazz04 Pete Mazzaccaro

      Good point. Bill. Still a “can’t win” or “make everybody happy” scenario, but not one that is necessarily business vs residents.

      • Tracy

        When the Good Food issue was raging some near neighbors came to my house about a half block from the store. They wanted me to join a petition and a meeting to block the store. I was flabbergasted — why they would not want the building rented, and for that great use. At the time the nail salon was vacant as was the gallery across the street. How is that good for the neighborhood?

        They were very honest and direct, surprised I did not realize their concern. They thought many would drive by the store on Willow Grove ave on the way home to here or worse, a suburb like Glenside and take a parking space between 5:00 and 6:00 at night that now is easier to get since all the doors are closed. I said that was crazy, actively wanting to keep out shops that would make the neighborhood better because street parking would be harder? Why live here in 10118 then?

        I was then told that I did not get it — and more — I really should not have an opinion that mattered. Even though I am a few houses away, we have a drive way. That, they shared, made my opinion count for nothing… I bid them a nice day and bad luck in their mission,…

        It is for too many an issue only and simply of parking, parking fast/close to my front door, and parking in bad weather… Recently neighbors argued to have a desert shop blocked so people would keep store and the lot vacant… The CHCA is there to help legitimate residential concerns and keep the right balance… I think they do well in that role and nothing about it seems easy…

        • Michael

          Tracy, you nailed it – why on earth would anyone choose live in an quasi-urban neighborhood centered around a commercial corridor that has existed for centuries if they have issues with the hassles of living in a city? With due respect to all long-time CH-ers, it is pure insanity to lend credibility to “near neighbors” who are intent on maintaining a status quo that is detrimental to the neighborhood at large (i.e., vacancies), just so they can access that parking spot they had grown accustomed to or because they’re concerned about increased foot traffic…on the sidewalk. I agree that finding parking can be a pain sometimes (as one without a driveway on a block with very constrained space, I can truly empathize), but if it really posed an unbearable quality of life problem, I wouldn’t have bought a house 1 1/2 blocks off the Avenue – there are plenty of great housing subdivisions with lower taxes and long driveways outside the city limits had that been what my family wanted, but we chose to be here because the pros outweighed the cons by a mile. Unfortunately, that means sometimes means making trade-offs such as parking around the block from the house, but you simply can’t always have the best of both worlds. These controversies (Chill the Hill, Rita’s, Greylock, Magarity’s, Good Food) amount to nothing but NIMBY-ism at its worst – no neighborhood or situation is static, and areas that don’t evolve grow stagnant and undesirable. As the column in the Local referenced last week, the neighborhood is changing and it feels like the tide of newcomers that embrace CH for what it is and are vested in the area realizing its full potential is strengthening (the recent rebirth of the Avenue seems to validate this trend), the CHCA would be wise to be cognizant of this.