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City Council bill aims to protect neighbors from construction accidents

Council could vote Thursday on a bill intended to ensure excavation work is being done safely by qualified contractors and that neighbors are better informed about construction work.

Firefighters, police and rescue crews evaluate the scene of a building collapse at Ridge Ave and Vineyard in North Philadelphia in 2018.
Firefighters, police and rescue crews evaluate the scene of a building collapse at Ridge Ave and Vineyard in North Philadelphia in 2018.Read moreHeather Khalifa / Staff Photographer

In neighborhoods across Philadelphia, homeowners have seen excavation work next door damage or destroy their properties, or drive them from their homes for their safety.

After years of construction accidents and resident complaints, the city is considering requiring excavation licenses and adopting new safety measures meant to protect neighboring properties during construction work. City Council could vote as soon as Thursday on a bill intended to ensure that excavation is being done safely by qualified contractors and that neighbors are better informed about the work happening next to them.

The city’s construction boom has resulted in a growing number of construction accidents, including those caused by digging in rowhouse basements without proper supports in place to prevent wall or building collapses. The Riverwards L+I Coalition, the volunteer group neighbors formed in 2018 to advocate on behalf of residents affected by construction in the Fishtown area, has seen an uptick in work that damages neighboring properties throughout the city. The city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections has been working over the last two years on solutions detailed in the latest legislation.

“Excavation, especially when done near existing structures, can be dangerous, and if errors are made, the results can be catastrophic,” Sarah Adamo, legislative affairs manager at the department, said during a Council hearing last week.

The legislation would impose new guidelines for contractors working next to existing structures and on or near historic structures. Contractors would need a separate permit in most cases when digging more than five feet into the earth.

An applicant for a permit to excavate would need a separate trade license and would need to submit an excavation plan and pre-construction surveys that document existing conditions of adjacent buildings. Applicants also would need to obtain a site safety manager and a general liability insurance policy with a $2 million minimum.

Project details, protective measures, and contact information would have to be given to adjacent property owners before excavation starts. The sign on site about the project would have to identify if excavation or underpinning is included in the scope of the approved permit. A common concern among neighbors of properties under construction is that they don’t know what work is happening or allowed, and whom to call about problems. The excavation license requirement also would add a step to the public process to help inform neighbors about a project, Adamo said.

» READ MORE: After collapsed buildings and damaged homes, Philly strengthens construction oversight (from November 2019)

Building professionals hired by property owners or their contractors would need to perform inspections and structural checks of adjoining properties.

Councilmember Bobby Henon, the bill’s sponsor, noted damage by excavators is part of a larger problem.

“A lot of times, some of these contractors are unscrupulous. They don’t follow the rules. They don’t report. There’s no record,” he said at a June 9 Council hearing. “And when they dig, it can be very, very dangerous when it comes to adjacent properties.”

L&I has been looking for ways to protect adjacent structures during construction for the last 15 years, and the problem “really became prevalent over the past five years,” Elizabeth Baldwin, the city’s chief code engineer, told City Council members.

» READ MORE: A contractor without proper permits destroyed a family’s home of 61 years (from March 2019)

If Council passes the bill, the ordinance would take effect on Jan. 1, 2023. Advocates say that’s too long to wait for protections and that provisions such as information sharing with neighbors could happen sooner.

“Between now and 2023, we can still have a lot of damage that can happen,” said Venise Whitaker, founder of the Riverwards L+I Coalition.

Karen Guss, a spokesperson for L&I, said the legislation is “a high priority” for the department, and the lead time is necessary to properly notify affected contractors and allow them to get the credentials they will need. In addition, the department has a long list of other new Council-driven initiatives to implement.

» READ MORE: Philly L&I can’t fill open building and code inspector jobs. It’s not alone. (from March 2020)

The Riverwards L+I Coalition was involved in early talks with the department about the addition of an excavator license and protections for historic properties. The group supports the legislation as a step in the right direction but considers the extra costs in the bill to be burdensome to small contractors and criticizes the bill for holding these small businesses accountable without extending that accountability to developers. The coalition also wants more help for residents, including assistance with legal fees for those who can’t afford to take their cases over property damage to court and more support to protect neighbors’ rights.

“I’m very pleased that this is on the radar of City Council,” said Drew Miller, outreach chair for the Riverwards L+I Coalition. “This is definitely an area that needs a lot of tweaking.”

Miller said he was glad the bill requires contractors to share project details with neighbors before excavation, but he worries contractors will wait until the last minute, and residents won’t have enough time to understand the work that is happening, the ways in which it might affect their properties, and their rights when they’re asked for access to their properties.

For historically designated structures, the bill also provides additional protections where excavation occurs in an adjacent structure or construction or demolition occurs on or near the historic sites. A contractor would be required to submit pre-construction plans and/or monitoring plans by a licensed engineer if excavation, construction, or demolition occurs within 90 feet of a historically designated structure or a historically designated building is undergoing structural alteration or additions. The work would also require inspections by a licensed special inspector.

“These extra steps will help to ensure that the city’s historic structures are preserved and maintained for years to come,” Adamo said.

Henon noted that Philadelphia is a city of old housing stock and called the legislation “an incredible step moving forward in the right direction to ensure the safety of our citizens and the properties that we have.”

This story has been updated to clarify that no homeowners have been killed due to neighboring excavation work.