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Council President Darrell L. Clarke wants to give lawmakers more influence over development

Mayor Jim Kenney's administration said a proposal by Clarke would slow development.

Philadelphia City Council President Darrell L. Clarke has sought to increase lawmakers' role in land-use and development decisions.
Philadelphia City Council President Darrell L. Clarke has sought to increase lawmakers' role in land-use and development decisions.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

City Council may soon gain more influence over land use and development decisions in Philadelphia after a committee on Monday advanced legislation by Council President Darrell L. Clarke that could reshape the zoning board, an arcane but powerful panel that often has final say over whether proposed developments can move forward.

Members of the Law & Government Committee approved Clarke’s proposal — over the objections of Mayor Jim Kenney — to expand the board from five to seven members; require Council approval of mayoral appointees to the board; and require that the positions be filled by people with specified backgrounds, such as an urban planner and leaders of community groups.

The addition of Council approval for appointees would be the latest expansion of lawmakers’ influence in development issues during the tenure of Clarke, who has been critical of rapid development in gentrifying areas of the city and has sought to increase the power of neighborhood groups and district Council members.

“With the unprecedented level of development that has happened, more and more frequently there have been challenges in the operations of the zoning board,” Clarke said at the hearing, echoing some neighborhood groups’ concerns that the Zoning Board of Adjustments gives developers too much leeway.

» READ MORE: Former Councilman Frank DiCicco to lead Philly zoning board

The board’s role is to decide whether projects should get “variances” that allow developers to exceed certain zoning restrictions, such as how tall a building can be or how many units it can hold. At its hearings, developers make their case for why a project warrants a variance, while registered community organizations have the opportunity to voice support or concerns about its impact. Often times, district Council members who represent a given area will weigh in as well.

Kenney recently appointed former Temple University executive William Bergman, a former police commander, to lead the board, replacing former Councilmember Frank DiCicco.

The mayor’s first appointee to head the panel was James E. Moylan, who was the chiropractor for Kenney backer and former labor leader John J. Dougherty. Moylan in 2020 was sentenced to 15 months in prison for embezzling money from a charity, charges stemming from the federal investigation that last month led to Dougherty’s conviction on bribery and honest services fraud charges.

» READ MORE: ‘Johnny Doc’ ally who led Philly zoning board sentenced to more than a year in prison for nonprofit thefts

The former head of the electricians union, Dougherty and others in the building trades unions are vocal proponents of continuing Philadelphia’s recent construction boom.

But at Monday’s hearing, community group representatives contended that the zoning panel has become too cozy with development interests, at the expense of neighbors. Susan Nam, a Northwest Philly resident who has worked to strengthen the role of community organizations in the ZBA process, said the proposal would help neighborhood groups stand up to deep-pocketed builders.

“No one will argue that profit is the crux of our capitalist city, but what we are saying is that our communities will not be dictated by it,” Nam said.

The administration, however, cautioned lawmakers from adopting changes that could slow development in the city and lessen its economic benefits. Anne Fadullon, the city’s director of the planning and development, testified that the changes could hinder the work of the board in part by making it harder to find willing members.

“We are concerned that the Charter change will significantly delay the ZBA’s work and ultimately impede development,” Fadullon said. “This is a board that has probably become one of the most important boards in the city.”

The administration proposed changing Clarke’s legislation to add flexibility to the requirement that board appointees have certain backgrounds and to permit the mayor to make direct appointments to the board if Council took longer than 90 days to vote on confirmations, according to an administration document obtained by The Inquirer. Clarke, however, declined to proceed with those amendments.

» READ MORE: The push for affordable development in West Philly is not creating real affordability | Opinion

Fadullon said that the board, whose members work significant hours for little pay, already struggles to maintain the necessary quorum of three of the five members to act. Expanding it to seven would make establishing quorums, which would then require four members, even more difficult, she said. Board members earn $100 per session, and the ZBA generally holds three to four sessions per week.

Additionally, she said the administration agrees with Clarke’s goal of professionalizing the board, but warned that specifying positions for development industry professionals could lead to members more frequently having to recuse themselves for conflicts of interest.

In addition to an urban planner, the proposal would require the ZBA include individuals with backgrounds in zoning law, architecture, and construction. It also calls for the inclusion of at least two people with experience leading community groups.

Development industry representatives contend the changes will weaken the administration’s authority, further complicating the already-Byzantine process for building in Philadelphia.

“The city is organized as a strong-mayor government, and the Workshop cautions against legislation that would diminish the mayor’s authority,” said David Feldman, executive director of the industry advocacy group the Development Workshop.

The committee approved the legislative package in unanimous voice votes of those present. Council members Helen Gym and David Oh were absent.

The proposal now goes to the full Council, where it could be approved as soon as the end of the year. Because the proposal amends the city Home Rule Charter, it would then go before the voters in a referendum on the 2022 primary ballot.

Given the legislation’s strong showing in committee and the fact that voters almost always approve ballot measures, it has a strong chance of becoming law, taking effect in October 2022.