By Jim Kenney
With all Philadelphia's waterways officially classified as impaired, we need to use every tool we have to protect our drinking water and clean up our rivers and streams. One such tool is a development buffer around the city's waterways. A buffer of at least 50 feet is important to prevent flooding, filter pollution, and manage storm runoff.
Why am I writing about this today? Because it's within City Council's power to protect our waterways with a 50-foot buffer, but some in our ranks may be trying to whittle a proposed buffer down to 25 feet. Experts say that would be wholly inadequate and would not meet basic water quality goals. (The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection recommends 100-foot buffers on all waterways.)
Buffers make economic sense. For every natural buffer not enforced now, the Water Department will have to add costly infrastructure to remove contaminants from drinking water down the road.
Buffers also allow for the possibility of recreational trails along our waterways in the future. On any weekend day or afternoon, you'll see thousands of Philadelphians biking, running, or walking in the Schuylkill Banks area and along other trails throughout the city. We should be encouraging more residents to take advantage of the outdoors and reconnect with our priceless waterfronts.
The 50-foot buffer was meant to be part of the city's new zoning code, which finally went into effect in August following a four-year reform effort. After a 100-foot setback was originally proposed, a 50-foot compromise was agreed to by developers, environmental advocates, City Council, and the City Planning Commission. Under the compromise, the buffer would not affect existing buildings, and there would be exceptions for industrial, marine, and port-related uses. However, the compromise proposal was taken out of the zoning code right before it went into effect.
Two hundred years ago, Philadelphians suffered a yellow fever epidemic that led the city to begin protecting its water supply and preserving open space around it, eventually establishing Fairmount Park. Today, as we face new challenges, we need to reaffirm that commitment by providing buffers of at least 50 feet along all the city's waterways.