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The regulatory framework for land development – Part 3

September 25, 2010

This post picks up from where we left off on Sept. 7, when we looked at how website content/organization might influence potential home buyers/investors.

Since then, let’s give credit where credit is due. The web pages of the Parks & Recreation Department have been updated and they look great!

Our first look at the regulatory framework for land development tried to set the context in which land & building development take place. There are laws and ordinances that tell property owners what they can/can’t do with property they own or are considering purchasing. They make financial decisions based on their best guess as to how easily they will get approvals and be able to move on their projects. Time is money. Potential investors usually choose the path, or location, of least resistance.

In our second look, we went to the Borough’s website as though we were a potential business/property owner to get a sense of what incentives or regulations might impact our decision to locate in Pottstown. We found information that was confusing & not designed to entice people to town.

Now let’s go a little deeper into Pottstown’s actual ordinances and processes. I will only be spotlighting a few examples because to sort these out actually requires a complex and longer-term investigation, which is already underway to a certain extent by a committee that includes the Planning Commission, county planner and Borough staff. My understanding is that they are looking at ways to clarify and streamline some parts of the zoning ordinance and their approval and inspection processes. This is very good news.

Most people who are tuned into Pottstown’s ongoing land use discussions will have heard complaints about “codes,” “enforcement,” “HARB,” and “the zoning ordinance.” What do they really mean by this? Again, I am just going to give a few examples.

1) Just looking at some of the required inspections & their forms makes me worry what I might be getting into. It says here that a permit is required for a change in occupancy. That’s a good requirement. When I click on “Homeownership Property Transfers,” I get a 2-page form that has to be filled out for an inspection, I suppose. I see in bold, capital letters at the top of each of the 2 pages, “PLEASE ALLOW 3-4 WEEKS FOR APPOINTMENTS.”

Now I have to wonder if this is the beginning of some convoluted red-tape that I won’t get through for several months. Do I really have to do this? The 3-4 week warning is a red flag – what is it about this government’s process that requires that amount of time to get an appointment?

2) HARB = Historic Architectural Review Board. In a town with historic architecture and designated historic districts, this is a good and necessary Board. But I’m not clear on why their approvals/denials go on to Borough Council for another round of review, especially when anecdotal evidence points to the Council never really reversing a HARB decision. If you keep HARB well-stocked with a mix of knowledgeable professionals and citizens, maybe they could be converted to a decision-making body (rather than an advisory one) and entrusted with the final decision, leaving Council available for appeals only.

3) A zoning ordinance is supposed to be based on a Master Plan. A Master Plan is THE community document that spells out the vision for the future across all planning areas: housing, land use, open space, transportation, recreation, historic preservation and more. Pottstown has not updated its own Comprehensive Plan since 1986. It now uses the Pottstown Metropolitan Regional Comprehensive Plan as its guiding document; that is in the process of being updated.

With all due respect to the intent & spirit of regional planning, without a thoughtful, public master planning process and Master Plan that is very specific to Pottstown, it will be hard to get a handle on what you want your zoning to do for you today, not 25 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Today.

As an illustration of how zoning might impact investment decisions by outsiders as well as current property owners, I’m only going to talk about one facet of the ordinance – the Conservation District overlay. It covers three zones: Neighborhood Residential (NR), Traditional Town Neighborhood (TTN) and Downtown (D).

The Conservation District rules are designed to do just that – conserve what already exists. Again, with all due respect, it is wonderful that Pottstown provides modest homes to a range of income levels. But virtually all of the North End, East End and West End – all the “Neighborhood Residential” (NR) areas on the Zoning Map, fall under the “Conservation District” overlay. If you look at the stated intent of the Conservation District in Sec. 302 on page 27-14 of the Zoning Ordinance, you can see how a discussion of actual historically-significant properties somehow morphs to include properties that just happen to be more than 50 years old.

First, just because a building is more than 50 years old doesn’t mean it’s worth “conserving.” Second, having such a tight rein on what property owners can do with their own property (that is NOT in a Historic District) results in a dampening effect on the reasonable movement of the free market, which includes outside investors as well as current property owners looking to increase the value of their asset.

I am in no way advocating for a free-for-all, teardown/McMansion scenario. But ordinances can be written to facilitate, rather than hinder, appropriate, planned redevelopment of at least some areas where the existing housing stock may never appeal to the higher-income consumers you say you want to attract to the Borough.

What specifically is in the Conservation District language? Take a look at the Zoning Ordinance. At the bottom of page 27-15 and the top of page 27-16, there’s a description of the review procedure for any work proposed on any building in a Conservation District. It specifically includes the installation of fences.

I’m not sure if this is actually carried out this way. I have heard that fence applications go to Planning, which is a problem right there. I don’t think I can name any other place where a fence application goes to a Planning Commission. In Pottstown’s ordinance, because Planning is an advisory body, not a decision-making body, a final fence decision seems to have to come from Council. It says it at the top of page 27-16. I doubt this works this way in real life. Regardless, it should be taken off the books.

Moving down the page, the restrictiveness of the Conservation District becomes apparent when you look at the Conservation District Summary Chart. The general requirements are to “conserve,” to keep additions or new buildings in scale, size, and materials consistent with what already exists. This makes perfect sense for districts or zones with truly architecturally significant buildings. This does not make sense for an entire town. Basically, next to no housing in Pottstown can ever break out of the mold that was set in the 1940s and 1950s in all those neighborhoods that are not even near any Historic District.

To conclude… it seems like there’s an unraveling and across-the-board re-thinking that needs to take place regarding what the town wants to be/look like. Then, the town can re-consider all of its zoning and land use approval processes in that light. It looks to me like the land use and development areas could benefit enormously from a process similar to the one the Borough undertook to analyze and re-order its financial systems. These efforts bring clarity, streamlining and accountability. It’s good government.

Visioning & master planning help you to articulate what you want your community to be in the future. The changes that need to be made to land use ordinances and systems will become more apparent if you know what you want to achieve as a community.

Next up: Current planning documents, or the reports that everyone needs in front of them if they want to talk about revitalization & development in the Borough.

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4 Comments
  1. September 25, 2010 3:21 pm

    Simplified and digestable. The current system of obtaining HARB approval, Council approval, a waiting period for the “Certificate of Appropriateness”, (which sometimes falls through the cracks), then awaiting contact from Codes for a building permit can forestall even the simplest of exterior improvements for homeowners and businesses alike. It is an unnecessary complication while trying to coordinate contractors and other professional services when the start date of a project is not clear because it is dependent on so many processes. Empowering HARB would be a very good idea.

    The length of time it takes to go through this process is the singular reason, given by many homeowners and small businesses, as to why they think twice about making improvements to their properties. As a consequence, it is one of the reasons that many properties are in decline, and many others are maintained only to meet minimum standards of Code.

    Been there.

    • September 26, 2010 11:05 am

      Hi, Katy – yes, it seems everyone has their story of delays, and it’s really discouraging to hear/see how owners of all types of properties put off maintenance and upgrades. I’ve got my fingers crossed that some of it is beginning to get sorted out and corrected.

  2. Tom Carr0ll permalink
    September 25, 2010 5:47 pm

    This is great research and excellent points. I respectfully request our local government officials to please take advantage of the research and logic stated in the article.

    On another note; I was at the trail town conference on Thursday 9/25. It started out at the Elks for a great opening speech and wonderful breakfast. After breakfast, the participants broke up into 2 groups and went out to learn about the assets in Pottstown and about projects that embrace the trail and river.

    Here are some expert words spoken that day.

    There’s a difference between a Trail Town and a town with a trail.

    There’s a difference between a College Town and a town with a college.

    When a trail gets over 100 miles long look out. The Schuylkill Trail, when complete will extend to the Philadelphia airport. 100 is a magic number. People fly in and bike the hundred miles, ride back, and stay at places along the trail. Pottstown is smack in the middle of the 100 miles.

    The Schuylkill River Greenway Association (SRGA) is unveiling a tool box for the towns along the river. The tool box provides a step by step program in planning for being trail town.

    The SRGA is providing grant money for the towns along the river.

    On and on; I was excited. Off to lunch…….

    Sitting at the table with the manager and supervisors from East Coventry, still excited, we talk about our great assets; the trail and the river.

    Still excited with a desire to share my excitement with my local officials and government employees, I scanned the room. I saw officials from Phoenixville, Royersford, Collegeville, Boyertown, Douglassville and on and on.

    The excitement waned.

    Where was Pottstown? I couldn’t find them and sadness came upon me.

    The people from Pottstown that need to hear the words from the experts weren’t there.

    Please consider,” we don’t know what we don’t know.” The speakers at the trail town conference have worked through many issues that affect a town like Pottstown. The knowledge gained from the trail town conference for a town along a river is priceless.

    Hopefully there will be a trail town conference next year. Pottstown; please, schedule the day. You won’t be disappointed.

    • September 25, 2010 6:15 pm

      Tom, thanks so much for the summary and the excitement – it comes through! I was signed up to go, but was overwhelmed with writing and missed out at the last minute. I still hope to collect info and the “tool box.” I heard that Evan was there and the Mercury will be covering the conference.

      Tomorrow I’m launching a parks & rec. series with/on behalf of the Pottstown Area Health and Wellness Foundation. Because of that, I recently spent more time in Riverfront Park, and I am also so excited about its potential to attract visitors to/thru Pottstown. There is so much potential for Pottstown on that front and on others, and my sense is that there’s a core group of people who are ready, willing and able to work collaboratively and make things happen. To me, it feels like things are going to start happening, no matter what, thanks to you and those like you who are investing time and creative energy to investigate and figure it out.

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