Community groups face new city registration requirement

Vo­lun­teer com­munity groups throughout the city each re­ceived the same alarm­ing no­tice from the City Plan­ning Com­mis­sion last month. They were told that the city would no longer re­cog­nize them as of March 1.

But upon fur­ther re­view, the news wasn’t so bad after all.

The same Jan. 18 let­ter ex­plained that, as a res­ult of new zon­ing code pro­vi­sions passed in­to law by City Coun­cil, there would be new cri­ter­ia for groups to qual­i­fy as “re­gistered com­munity or­gan­iz­a­tions” or RCOs. Coun­cil­man Bobby Hen­on, a North­east Philly Demo­crat, au­thored the le­gis­la­tion.

As a res­ult, neigh­bor­hood civic as­so­ci­ations, polit­ic­al ward com­mit­tees, neigh­bor­hood im­prove­ment dis­tricts and oth­er non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tions will have to re­apply for RCO status, while some groups may have to modi­fy their struc­tures and mis­sions just to qual­i­fy un­der the new cri­ter­ia.

The Plan­ning Com­mis­sion will hold three pub­lic clin­ics to help groups pre­pare their new RCO ap­plic­a­tions. The ses­sions will be on Feb. 5 at 5:30 p.m., Feb. 7 at 11:30 a.m. and Feb. 10 at 5:30 p.m. at 1515 Arch St., Room 18-029. The clin­ics are free. Groups are asked to re­gister via or 215-683-4612.

Hen­on ex­pects the new guidelines to stream­line com­munity no­ti­fic­a­tion pro­vi­sions in the zon­ing code.

“There were a lot of bur­den­some re­spons­ib­il­it­ies on vo­lun­teers in these com­munity groups,” Hen­on told the North­east Times. “It took up a lot of their time and be­cause of a lack of (pub­lic) fund­ing, it could be costly to them. Some groups were not no­ti­fy­ing neigh­bors when zon­ing is­sues were com­ing up. This is a wel­come shift of the bur­den.”

Ac­cord­ing to Elean­or Sharpe, dir­ect­or of le­gis­lat­ive and in­ter­gov­ern­ment­al af­fairs for the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion, there were about 250 re­gistered RCOs in the city un­der the old sys­tem. All will have to re­apply for RCO status, but only about a dozen could be at risk of re­jec­tion un­der the new sys­tem, Sharpe said.

Mainly, the at-risk groups are or­gan­iz­a­tions that fo­cus on mat­ters spe­cif­ic to one is­sue — such as bill­boards — or cov­er too big of a geo­graph­ic area. Un­der the new rules, is­sue-based groups will not be re­gistered, nor will groups whose stated geo­graph­ic ter­rit­or­ies en­com­pass more than 20,000 par­cels. That in­cludes homes and busi­nesses of any shape or size. On av­er­age, 20,000 par­cels cov­er about three square miles, ac­cord­ing to Hen­on.

There was no such thing as an RCO be­fore the city ad­op­ted a new zon­ing code in Au­gust 2012. Neigh­bor­hood civic as­so­ci­ations have been around for dec­ades. But in zon­ing mat­ters, they’ve al­ways had the same stand­ing as in­de­pend­ent cit­izens. They still do.

“Be­ing an RCO or not be­ing an RCO does not im­pact at all wheth­er or not you can go to the zon­ing board and ex­press an opin­ion,” Sharpe said. “It’s a no­ti­fic­a­tion pro­cess; that is all.”

Un­der the old sys­tem, the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion would no­ti­fy af­fected RCOs when someone had ap­plied for a zon­ing ex­cep­tion or vari­ance in a neigh­bor­hood. De­pend­ing on the loc­a­tion, there might’ve been nu­mer­ous RCOs or per­haps none. The ap­plic­ant was re­spons­ible for at­tend­ing a pub­lic meet­ing at each af­fected RCO to present his plans for the group’s con­sid­er­a­tion. The RCOs were re­spons­ible for no­ti­fy­ing neigh­bors of the meet­ing by mail or in per­son at the com­munity group’s own ex­pense.

“It got to where a de­veloper might have to have six or sev­en meet­ings,” Hen­on said. “This did away with all of that.”

Un­der the new sys­tem, the ap­plic­ant, not the RCO, must no­ti­fy all af­fected neigh­bors. Mean­while, one RCO will be chosen to or­gan­ize a single pub­lic meet­ing in­volving any oth­er RCOs and the ap­plic­ant, as well as neigh­bors. 

The RCO cri­ter­ia also in­clude ele­ments to en­sure the le­git­im­acy of com­munity groups. RCOs must meet reg­u­larly and keep meet­ing minutes. 

Meet­ings must be an­nounced pub­licly, re­gard­less if a par­tic­u­lar ses­sion in­volves a zon­ing mat­ter. There also must be elec­ted lead­ers.

“Most of the or­gan­iz­a­tions in the city already com­ply, and the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion, through these work­shops, will tell you what you need,” Hen­on said.  ••

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