By Chris Bordelon
I read in the Inquirer recently that Councilmember Brian O’Neill “points to his record of standing against multifamily developments that could threaten the Far Northeast’s suburban feel.” However, Somerton Civic Association’s board recently heard from a Planning Commission staff member that O’Neill asked them to prepare for him to introduce a rezoning bill for Somerton that would promote the very thing he told the Inquirer he’s “standing against.” The bill would implement rezoning recommendations of the Far Northeast Districts Plan. That plan recommends upzoning large areas along Bustleton and Philmont avenues and Byberry Road to permit construction of new apartments and scaling up of existing multifamily uses, construction of apartments over ground floor retail space and either a SEPTA parking garage or even more apartments. All such developments could be built by right with no community input through the zoning variance process.
When the Plan was drafted in 2017, SCA’s membership sent me and other members to the Planning Commission hearing that April to testify against it. We argued that the proposed rezoning lacked neighbors’ support, would worsen existing traffic and parking problems, and would crowd a neighborhood attractive to residents who prefer a less thickly settled area. The Commission rubber stamped the Plan over our objections. Apparently surprised that we had come downtown to oppose the Plan, the chairperson asked the city planner presenting that day what he had done to ensure community support. The planner defended the Plan by explaining that it had been reviewed and fully vetted and approved by O’Neill, and that O’Neill and his staff had suggested much of the contents.
The 2017 Plan’s rezoning recommendations need a Council bill enacted to make them law. Apparently, O’Neill has chosen the month and a half after Election Day, Nov. 7, to push it through Council. According to the planner, O’Neill knows that the bill would be controversial. With that in mind, O’Neill has apparently chosen to introduce it in November, after it could affect the election, but still in time to permit enactment by year’s (and Council term’s) end.
When I described at SCA’s Oct. 10 meeting what the planner had told our board members, O’Neill’s staffer (the first to attend an SCA meeting in a year) first claimed that an existing “overlay” law would ban all multifamily uses of the properties to be rezoned, even if O’Neill’s November multifamily rezoning bill is introduced and enacted. I responded that I didn’t think that she had accurately described existing law. Rezoning according to the Plan’s recommendations would allow multifamily residential uses. The “overlay” she referenced would do no more than limit (inadequately, in my opinion) the scale of some of those uses, and do so on only part of the area being rezoned to allow them. The staffer exited the meeting saying she was going to call someone more knowledgeable and return with an “answer.”
Later, O’Neill’s staffer returned to say that she had spoken to someone who had told her two things. First, O’Neill had, in the past, rezoned some land in his district to disallow multifamily uses. That, though, doesn’t address the problems with the November rezoning bill, which would do the opposite and allow such uses on land in Somerton. Second, she said that O’Neill had asked the planner to prepare a bill rezoning not only Somerton, but his whole district. This is not what the planner told SCA’s board. But even if it were true, it obviously doesn’t answer concerns about rezoning Somerton for by-right multifamily and parking garage uses. And it might raise further concerns for other neighborhoods affected by O’Neill’s plans.
O’Neill’s staffer’s red-herring “answers” notwithstanding, some unanswered questions remain. 1. Why does O’Neill want to rezone according to a Plan for which he never sought community support, a plan at odds with his claimed “record”? 2. Why is this rezoning bill being introduced too late for people to learn about its contents before Election Day, but in time to get through Council’s lame-duck session? 3. Does O’Neill intend to force the rezoning bill through even if he loses the election? 4. What property developers would benefit from the rezoning, which community members have neither requested nor supported? 5. Why, after years of this rezoning Plan gathering dust, does O’Neill feel it’s important now to seek its implementation and to strip community members of their ability to oppose unwanted development? ••
Chris Bordelon is president of the Somerton Civic Association.