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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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. ••