Construction in Passyunk Square, 2019

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The first charter change question for Philadelphians on the May 2022 ballot is probably the most controversial.

It centers on the Zoning Board of Adjustments, which makes decisions about which proposed developments get built across the city.

If approved, the measure would give City Council a greater say in who makes up this board, among other changes.

What you’ll see on the ballot

Shall the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to revise the composition of the Zoning Board of Adjustment by increasing the number of mayoral appointees from five to seven; by requiring Council confirmation of the mayor’s appointments; and by specifying qualifications that appointees must possess, including a demonstrated sensitivity to community concerns regarding development and the protection of the character of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods?

What it means

The Zoning Board of Adjustment is a five-member independent commission within the Philadelphia Dept. of Planning and Development.

The board hears appeals from people or companies looking for a zoning variance because they want to develop land or property in ways that don’t comply with existing city code, whether because of building size, scale, use, parking allotment, signage, or relationship to the environment. Appeals also come before the ZBA when the Dept. of Licenses and Inspections denies a zoning permit or issues other zoning-related violations.

ZBA decisions are legally binding and can only be overturned in courts. The board rarely denies appeal, as WHYY’s PlanPhilly has reported, approving the vast majority of variance requests that make it to a hearing.

This ballot question, which stems from legislation introduced last fall by Council President Darrell Clarke, would change the makeup of the board.

Two of the proposed changes are pretty self-explanatory. The number of members, who are appointed by the mayor, would increase from 5 to 7 — and each member would have to be confirmed by City Council.

The other change is adding specific qualifications for appointees.

What qualifications? The ballot question doesn’t specify, but the Council resolution that backs it up says the board must include:

  • an urban planner
  • an architect
  • a lawyer with zoning experience
  • a person with experience in the construction industry
  • at least two recognized leaders from community organizations

Board members would also have to “have shown sensitivity to community concerns regarding development and protection of the character of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.”

It’s not quite a volunteer position: ZBA members are expected to attend multiple meetings per week, and are paid $100 per meeting with a cap of $22k per year.

If the referendum passes, the changes will go into effect October 1. At that time, the existing members of the board would remain on the board until they are reappointed or replaced by individuals who are confirmed by Council.

Who’s for it

  • Council President Darrell Clarke authored the bill, and it was co-sponsored by eight other Council members. It passed unanimously in December.
  • Neighborhood associations and civic group members have given mixed feedback on the bill, but most like the idea of giving neighborhoods more of a say in zoning issues.

Who’s against it

  • The Kenney administration opposed this bill. Mayor Jim Kenney has said the measure could put a damper on development.
  • When the bill was pending in Council, city Planning Director Anne Fadullon said the measure could create delays in ZBA work, since it would need four sitting members to make decisions. She also said professionalizing board seats could make conflicts of interest and recusals more likely.
  • The Building Industry Association of Philadelphia said in November it was “watching closely” for what would happen with this bill. Association’s treasurer Mo Rushdy believes it’s part of a larger effort to slow development.