City Planning Director Janice Woodcock yesterday skewered Council members for what she called an intrusion of politics into public-health decisions facing the Water Department.
Council yesterday unanimously overrode the mayoral veto of a bill that would subject the Water Department to zoning board approval to build underground sewage storage tanks within 1,500 feet of any home, and prohibit the city from building those tanks at all within 1,500 feet of homes in two Council districts.
Mayor Street, in a veto letter to Council, said the legislation would "make it difficult for the Water Department to maintain and protect the quality of the environment and provide treatment of the city's sanitary waste."
It would also hinder the city's ability to combat basement flooding during heavy storms, he wrote.
Street and Woodcock questioned how Council could pass sewage regulations that applied only to two districts, Councilman Brian J. O'Neill's 10th District in Northeast Philadelphia, and Councilwoman Joan Krajewski's Sixth District, which includes parts of Northeast Philadelphia down to Port Richmond.
"This is more aggressive politicalization [of land-use policy] than anything we've seen - and we've seen quite a lot," Woodcock said yesterday. "This is one of the reasons our zoning code has deteriorated to the point that it has."
O'Neill introduced the legislation in the spring because the Water Department had proposed a 4.25-million gallon underwater tank that would catch and hold sewage in the event of intense rains. During these storms, groundwater often seeps into city sewage pipes - in this case, a sewer line running alongside Poquessing Creek - causing sewage mixed with rainwater to overflow into creeks and basements, and explode out of manhole covers.
It's a public-health hazard that the city must address or it will be forced to by the federal government, Woodcock said.
The tank would have been buried in parkland near the creek, but residents in the neighborhood near Holy Family University worried about the smell and questioned why they should shoulder the burden of a line that carries sewage from three suburban townships.
Although the Water Department abandoned that plan during the summer and offered to run a new bypass sewer line, O'Neill said he wanted the bill in place because neither he nor Krajewski trusted the Water Department to do what it said.
"I'd be glad to repeal this bill once they do," O'Neill said.
But Woodcock said the Council should not threaten to use zoning to oppose Water Department projects concerning public health.
"Sometimes you have to do things for the greater good that impacts a few people," she said.
O'Neill said he needed to intervene because the Water Department, without good reason, had initially refused to consider alternatives. He questioned whether city planners "should be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want to do it."