Local Opposition to Zoning Board Practices grows in East Mount Airy

by Patrick Cobbs
Posted 9/15/21

East Mt. Airy is booming with development, but much is the kind locals don’t want. The kind that makes long time residents feel pushed out.

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Local Opposition to Zoning Board Practices grows in East Mount Airy

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East Mt. Airy is booming with development, but much is the kind locals don’t want. The kind that makes long time residents feel pushed out. Susan Nam thinks this has happened because the city Zoning Board of Adjustment has spun out of control, allowing too many projects that do not conform to existing zoning.

To fix this, she has formed a fledgling coalition of more than 20 Registered Community Organizations from across the city to demand that Mayor Jim Kenney revamp the ZBA.

The ZBA considers requests by developers for variances to zoning laws. To give local context and promote compromise, the ZBA requires developers to meet with RCOs before any variance request.

But the RCOs signed onto Susan Nam’s letter feel the ZBA has stopped listening to them.

Residents and activists met on Slocum Street Sept. 12, between the Pleasant Playground Recreation Center and 6717 Chew Avenue, the site of an embattled 33-unit apartment project that the ZBA approved in June over extensive local opposition, to highlight the new coalition.

They picked the spot because it symbolizes a loss of local control over life in East Mt. Airy to the ZBA and the developers it supports. Neighbors have argued that the large proposed development by Audax Builders of Doylestown so close to the park, playground, recreation center, and public pool will diminish the park experience for users and could even be dangerous.

But after months of discussions and demonstrations within the neighborhood, and two months of testimony to the ZBA in which neighbors and Bass showed evidence of these claims, the ZBA approved the project anyway.

Neighbors were stunned. So was Eighth District City Councilmember Cindy Bass. She has filed an appeal to the ZBA decision in Common Pleas Court, joined by East Mt. Airy Neighbors and the Pleasant Advisory Council.

Bass said she supports this call for ZBA reform because a similar lack of regard for local concerns from the ZBA throughout Northwest Philadelphia is taking a toll.

“I think that there have been a number of decisions that have left the Eighth District perplexed,” she said. “It makes the community feel that their voices are not heard and their participation is not taken into account.”

Other parts of the city are feeling the problem too—in nearly identical terms.

“It feels like the RCOs and the neighbors are not being heard,” said Nicole Koedyker, executive director of the South of South Neighborhood Association in Center City, one of the signatories to the letter.

In the last several years, every development project that her group has opposed, the ZBA has approved, she said. It has left her and many others disheartened.

“I think that we’ve seen a lot of neighbors start to lose hope with the community process,” she said. “No matter what our position is, the ZBA seems to approve projects.”

For a while, she thought only her group was being ignored by the ZBA, but the letter from Susan Nam showed her the experience was much more widespread.

On Sept. 9, EMAN also voted to lend its support to the letter.

“There are people throughout the city addressing the same issues,” said Linda Bell, chair of EMAN Communications and Marketing at Sunday’s demonstration.

Bell claimed that more than 200 variances have been granted by the ZBA recently between Germantown and Chew Avenues, and that these decisions have served to overburden the area by adding density to what is already the densest part of East Mt. Airy.

The letter accuses the ZBA, which is politically appointed, of being too cozy with developers and accuses ZBA Chair, Frank DiCicco, of badgering and bullying neighbors and RCOs during hearings. It also claims that the Zoom-era ZBA practice of screen surrender to developers’ lawyers creates an unfair advantage for the applicants when they are in conflict with local voices.

The result of these and other repeated actions by the ZBA, according to the letter, is that local interests routinely get trampled, even when zoning law is on their side, and local people, who are often under-resourced, are over-burdened with legal and procedural demands.

Among the reforms the letter calls for are: new board members, holding some hearings during after-work hours, and a citizens oversight commission.

In what appeared to be a joint response from the ZBA and the Office of the Mayor, Deputy Communications Director, Kevin Lessard, wrote:

“Due to ongoing litigation, we're unable to comment on some of the specifics you've outlined in your questions. However, it is important to note that the Board, while appointed by the mayor, is independent, quasi-judicial, and not under the City's authority. RCOs with concerns are encouraged to contact the Inspector General or the Ethics Department directly to make a complaint, or file an appeal to the Court of Common Pleas if they feel a decision was made in error and are party to a specific case.”

DiCicco did not respond to a request for comment.

Halfway through the rally on Sunday, Susan Nam’s husband and three young children came out of the playground and down Slocum, past the activists, waving, on their short walk home.

When they got there, they would have encountered another proposed large development awaiting variances, one that had planned to construct a narrow driveway to multiple new homes only a foot or two from their front porch and door. It’s a project that, if it goes through, will have a huge impact on their lives.

Frustration and rage at this loss of control was what motivated Susan Nam to write her letter and bring together this new coalition of neighborhood groups. Hope is what keeps her going.

“It’s such a human-level thing,” she said. “I really don’t want this to be about us against them. That’s an old way of thinking, but it does seem that we need to force ourselves in the conversation.”

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