Councilman O’Neill Wants To Protect Your Neighborhood From Farms And Community Gardens

Have you ever felt it was necessary to “protect” your neighborhood from community gardens and farmer’s markets? No, you haven’t, because that’s insane. But apparently, Councilman Brian O’Neill, a Republican from the 10th District, feels they are a danger.

At a City Council Rules Committee hearing today, O’Neill’s amendments to the zoning code (affecting zones classified as CMX-2 and CMX-2.5) passed by a slim 4-3 margin. As you can see in the chart to the right (courtesy NEastPhilly.com), the amendments that O’Neill thought were so needed apply to his district the least. So he’s just thinking of everyone else? What a kind guy.

The bill passed in the hearing today (Council Bill 120917), which was amended by O’Neill, takes issue part of the code, a list of the types of businesses allowed, not allowed, and allowed with special exception. When the zoning code was getting a major overhaul, it only makes sense to ask the people who live in the communities near these zoned areas what they want and don’t want to allow. But O’Neill’s post-code plan? He wanted to roll the list back to an earlier version — one written in the 60s.

There’s a lot going on here, so take a deep breath and meet us after the jump.

Over the last four years, the zoning code was honed and developed by the Zoning Code Commission, and the new code has been in effect for only four months. So, when council decided to start making changes before the code was in effect for at least a year (which is what the ZCC hoped for, as well as common sense), the ZCC wasn’t too happy. Eva Gladstein, director of the Zoning Code Commission, told KYW “There was a hope that with all the effort that went in — including on the part of Council, and the $2 million that was spent, and the time that was spent — that the code would be allowed to work for a little while, to evaluate it. So we had hoped that there wouldn’t be substantive changes this soon in the process.” For his part, O’Neill said, “Some fine tuning can’t wait, when you can see it, it’s right there in front of you. You know it’s not going to be good for communities, and you have to protect them now, not wait.” And what exactly is he protecting communities from? Animal services (vets, grooming and supply shops), group living homes, community gardens, and market or community supported farms. You know, the real dangerous stuff.

Unsurprisingly, O’Neill’s changes haven’t gone over too well with the people who are already running these types of businesses, who had hoped the road would get easier for those who came after them. In a letter posted on Greensgrow Farms’ website, Mary Seton Corboy said:

I do not know Councilman O’Neill; I don’t even know where his district is. I don’t think that matters. I think that what he has suggested-City Council Bills 120916 and 120917-serve no purpose other than to inhibit the growth of urban farms and community gardens, both of which are contributing to the Mayor’s Sustainability Plan and both of which, all politics aside and in their most simplistic state allow for Philadelphians’ to take advantage of nature’s bounty to feed themselves and their families.”

In the same realm, Diane A. Menio, the Executive Director of CAIRE, said:

In Philadelphia there are eighty Licensed Personal Care Homes Serving over two-thousand seniors and people with physical and behavioral health disabilities. Over one-third of those residents receive Supplemental Security Income-(SSI) benefits of approximately $700/month. Without this residential option, many individuals would receive no assistance at all or end up needing the more costly services provided by a nursing home.”

What it all basically does is change the qualification for certain businesses from by-right (just get approval from L&I and you’re good to go) to special exception (you gotta get a lawyer, go through months of obtaining a referral, scheduling meetings, going to zoning adjustment hearings, and more, adding months and thousands of dollars to the opening process). All of that, just to open a community garden or a farm. In the bill’s slightly earlier form, the businesses which would also need special exceptions were prepared foods, dry cleaners, artist studios, and artisan industrial businesses. Those businesses were restored as by-right today, but the restrictions still remain for “transit stations, structured parking, moving and storage facilities, community gardens and market farms.”

The bill also effects housing above businesses (the idea for CMX is that its Commercial MiXed use). This bill puts into place that CMX-2 and 2.5 zoned parcels must restrict the number of dwelling units to that of the closest residential zoned parcel. For example, if you own a deli and you have two floors above your deli, and the closest residential lot is a single family home, you can (without a special variance) only have one apartment above your deli, rather than two. Really important stuff like that.

And, since it passed the rules committee, it is now law. L&I is required to enforce it as such until the full council can hear it (sometime in late January) and either uphold it or shoot it down (a source close to the bill tells us these repeals rarely happen). Understandably, community and neighborhood groups, along with local businesses, aren’t too pleased with a lot of this. We’ll keep you posted on this as it develops and a date is set for the full council, so you can go ahead and let them know how you feel.