It took a day and a half, but our plans have now officially been submitted to the City of Philadelphia for zoning approval. We filed for an accelerated review of the plans in order to get an answer within 5 days so if all goes well we will have zoning approval for both homes from the city by the end of the week or early next week.
I have heard horror stories about the zoning submission process at Philly’s Municipal Building but I have to say that the whole process wasn’t all too bad. Everyone I encountered was friendly and helpful and there was a fairly efficient system employed to keep things moving. As far as local government operations go, I was impressed.
ISA will often submit zoning for their clients but I wanted to become more familiar with the process so I volunteered to do the legwork. Philadelphia basically only requires a plot plan and elevations for zoning approval in the case of single-family homes so there was not a large roll of plans to submit. The only hiccup that we had was a requirement to get the Streets Department to approve a front step that we may need on the corner home that protrudes two feet onto the sidewalk. Since I arrived a bit late last Friday, by the time I got to the counter the Streets Department had already closed for the day (Streets closes at 11:30 AM) and I had to return Monday morning for their stamp of approval. This was a piece of cake on Monday and the employee at the Streets Department was one of the friendliest Philadelphian’s I’ve come in contact with in weeks. He was happy to see me, shook my hand three times and wished me luck as I left.
The biggest shock I had was the difference between the standard zoning submission fee and the accelerated review fee. I was told it would be only $25 for the standard submission, but if I elected the accelerated review it would set me back $445! What’s the difference you ask? If the standard fee is paid “it will be 8-12 weeks before anyone even picks up your submission.” Accelerated gets it done in 5 days. Now, I honestly don’t mind paying $450 to submit a new construction project to zoning but it sure would make me feel better if the gap between these two fees was a bit less. Something like $250 for a standard submission so we don’t all feel like we are being hosed quite so hard might be nice. In the end, I really am just happy that there is an option available to get an answer within a week from the city.
We are hopeful that our plans will get “over the counter” zoning approval at the end of five days. The only variance that we could possibly need is one for trying to build a home on a lot smaller than 1440 square feet in size. Our largest lot is 20′ x 58′ which is only 1160 square feet. This requirement is often overlooked by the zoning department as so many of the lots in Philadelphia do not meet this requirement. If they do reject us for this, then we will need to go in front of the neighborhood group for a community vote and then proceed to the city’s zoning board for final approval. This should not be a big problem but will certainly cause a time delay that would almost certainly push back our April target for breaking ground.
Philly Zoning Tip:
Lastly, I will leave you with a valuable tip for successfully navigating a day at the Philadelphia Municipal Building while keeping your sanity in tact. When you arrive, you must take a ticket with a number on it similar to the system at the deli counter in the grocery store. This is when the waiting begins. On a good day you may only wait 30 minutes, but on a bad day it may be hours or even result in you getting pushed to the next day. Arriving early obviously helps, but even better is to arrive at a reasonable time in the morning, grab your ticket and leave. When you return they will have passed your number but you can simply go up to the front counter and tell them you have returned and they will take you next. This allows you to go grab some breakfast, a cup of coffee, a haircut, a massage or whatever you would like to pass your time with. I elected to head over to Borders which is about 3 blocks away and enjoy a cup of coffee while I perused the morning paper. I have my landlord, Kerry Nelson to thank for this tip.
Dave from ISA alternately suggests waiting for the most miserable, cold and rainy day to go down and take care of all of your zoning business at once. The place will be empty and you can walk right up and be served immediately.