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Client Alert - So You Want to Build It: Development Approvals in Philadelphia

08.07.18

On August 2, 2018, Klehr Harrison Harvey Branzburg hosted the panel discussion, So You Want to Build It: Development Approvals in Philadelphia, a program demystifying The Zoning Code and a specific review of requirements of City’s departments.

Moderated by Brett Peanasky, the panel included:

Katherine E. Childers, PE, Project Engineer, Pennoni
Eric Leighton, AIA, Partner, Cecil Baker & Partners
Patrick Iffrig, PE, Engineering Supervisor, Right of Way Unit, Philadelphia Streets Department

Below are the top five take-a-ways from the panel discussion.

  1. Take advantage of public information and conduct research before the diligence period begins. As you zero-in on a development site and begin negotiating an agreement with the owner to obtain site control, there are many public sources of information that can provide valuable information about the current and historical conditions of the property. These sources include the City of Philadelphia Atlas and OpenMaps websites, the Office of Property Assessment and L&I websites, and plans prepared and adopted by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. Once you have some more information about the Property, consider engaging an attorney, engineer, architect, and other consultants (and hosting a project coordination meeting) so they can begin their respective analyses. It is important to know as much as possible about the property’s conditions and constraints before the diligence period begins.
  2. Get an early understanding of the specific approvals required for the project—and how much time it will take to obtain them. In addition to the Philadelphia Zoning Code, there are a number of regulations and requirements that apply to a development project. The preliminary research that you and your consultants do will identify which agencies must approve the project before you can submit an application for a zoning permit. These agencies may include the City Regulator (Survey Districts), Water Department, Historical Commission, Streets Department, and Planning Commission, among others. These prerequisite approvals can take significant amounts of time, and an early understanding of the required approvals will avoid delays later.
  3. Engage with key agencies and decision makers before you need their approval. As your consultants are developing the concept plans for the project, preliminary discussions and meetings with City agencies and other stakeholders are helpful. The City’s Developer Services Committee hosts regular meetings during which representatives of all relevant City agencies and utility companies review preliminary plans, identify issues that must be resolved, and respond to developers’ questions. In addition, if you know that your project will require a variance or special exception to from the Zoning Board, you should ask for a preliminary meeting with the Registered Community Organization (RCO) and the near neighbors. The development process is iterative: the design of the project will change in response to the feedback your receive during these meetings.
  4. Take neighbors’ concerns seriously and seek to address them. When a project requires a variance or special exception, the Zoning Board places significant weight on the opinions of the near neighbors and the RCO. Letters of support or non-opposition are critical to making the strongest case before the Zoning Board. Thus it is important to work with the near neighbors and RCO, listen to their concerns, and if necessary and appropriate, modify the project in response to those concerns.
  5. Understand and control the risk of an appeal of a ZBA Decision or Permit. The Philadelphia Code and provides that any person who is affected by the issuance of a zoning permit may appeal the issuance of that permit to the ZBA, and may appeal a decision of the ZBA (whether on a variance, special exception, or permit appeal) to the Court of Common Pleas. Affected parties could include the RCO, a neighbor, or any other person or entity who can demonstrate that the permit or decision injures them. Whether or not you feel that an appellant’s objections have merit, you will need to defend against such an appeal. An appeal does not stay the permit or ZBA decision, but you proceed with the project at risk in the event that the permit or ZBA decision is overturned. Thus an appeal can add months of delays and serious uncertainty to a project. Addressing neighbors’ concerns before the ZBA hearing and providing the appropriate evidence to the Zoning Board, such as appropriate expert reports and testimony, will decrease the risk that an appeal is filed and will improve your ability to successfully defend against that appeal.

These top five take-a-ways represent the high points of the meeting. Subscribe to our website alerts and/or follow the firm on LinkedIn to see the latest thought leadership and learn how our lawyers are being trusted advisors to each of their clients.