- Pennsylvania Among 'Terrible 10' Most Regressive Tax States
- February 4 Non-Partisan Training: HOW TO RUN FOR ELECTION BOARD IN 2013: HOW TO RUN FOR COMMITTEEPERSON IN 2014
- Republican Governors Opt-In to Medicaid Expansion
- The Reports of Unions' Death Are Greatly Exaggerated
- Ask Allyson Schwartz to run for Governor
- Mind the gap: Opting Out of Medicaid Expansion Leaves Low-income Families Behind
- Jan. 14 Workshop:HOW TO RUN FOR ELECTION BOARD IN 2013; HOW TO RUN FOR COMMITTEEPERSON IN 2014
- Seth Williams on Guns, Jasmine Rivera on School Closures @PFC Meetup Wednesday
- PA Revenue Strong Midway Through Year; Tax Cut Could Have Big Impact
- What to Make of the Fiscal Cliff Deal?
Preemption and Its Discontents: Zoning and Billboards
Building on both our attempt to go over recent history, as well as to deal with a big issue in Philly- the constant preemption of our laws by the State- I recently wrote about preemption and guns. Today, I am tackling some very recent history- the State and its attempts to save the Billboard industry from our pesky billboard laws:
Philadelphia’s right to zone, while recently in the news due to the Casino fight, has in fact been an ongoing issue for a number of years. In fact, a significant preemption of the City’s zoning rights came in 2005, in an attempt to appease the Philadelphia billboard industry and silence a number of successful Philadelphia anti-billboard activists. That law, known as Act 193, could be described as the “Leave No Billboard Behind Act.”
The zoning and billboard controversy starts like many zoning issues do in the City, with the City’s own zoning board not following the law. In 1991, the City passed a strict zoning law to restrict the number of new billboards that could be placed in the City. In response, the Zoning board, appointed by Mayors (Rendell and Street) who accepted large donations from the billboard companies, granted a variance for any new billboard anyway, effectively neutering the City law.
In response to the City’s non-enforcement of its own law, a community group named the Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight (SCRUB) began to appeal the variances to the Court of Common Pleas. SCRUB began to see a fair number of successes in getting the rulings of the zoning companies overturned. Effectively, SCRUB was simply doing what the Zoning Board was not, and getting the Court to enforce the law, through the appeals process. In response, the billboard companies went to work at the State level to make it much harder for SCRUB to go after them.
Unlike simply taking over schools or parking, or preempting the City’s right to regulate lending, the billboard attack did something much different: it fundamentally altered and severely restricted the rights of ordinary citizens to appeal zoning decisions. In Philadelphia, to have standing to challenge a zoning decision, a citizen needed only to be a taxpayer. In the amendment, written by the zoning industry, the legal standing was changed so that only “aggrieved parties” that were “detrimentally harmed” could challenge zoning decisions in Philadelphia. The term “aggrieved parties” meant that the only people who have legal standing to appeal zoning decisions were effectively adjacent property owners. In other words, no matter the zoning decision, and importantly, whether the issue is billboards, casinos, or anything else, Philadelphians no longer within a very short distance of a problem property have standing to appeal a zoning decision. And, even if they can appeal, first, they must go through expensive court battles to prove they have standing.
As would be expected with a law such as this, battles in the Court are now ongoing to determine just how far reaching its implications are. However, if Rep. Mark Cohen is correct, the bill not only hurts groups like SCRUB, it also hurts the ability, for example, of neighborhood groups to go after nuisance properties.
In the aftermath of the Statewide uproar over the legislative pay raise, one constant has been that the average voter of Philadelphia was not concerned with the pay raise, nor with the ensuing structural reforms that have been proposed by the Legislature and the Governor. Theories abound as to why this is, from the salaries of Councilmen, to the Philadelphia-centric scandals, to concerns instead with more pressing problems, such as gun violence. What is clear is that the push for one particular reform, an end to the late night vote, should be more important. Why? Because when it comes to their zoning rights, Philadelphia experienced a significant setback, in a little noticed amendment, attached in the middle of the night.
The zoning and pre-emption issues did not stop there of course, as we have seen with the Casinos. In any case, as far as I can tell, the long term ramifications of this preemption are still unclear. And, if we actually get a zoning board that follows the law, maybe it won't be huge. But, under the current framework, it is a pretty crappy bill, that the state imposed on us.