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SOSNA's Role in Zoning
The SOSNA Zoning Committee is an advisory body to the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adustment (ZBA). The ZBA hears cases in which applicants need relief from the Philadelphia Zoning Code (Title 14 of the Philadelphia Code) to complete their projects. Applicants apply for building permits at the Municipal Services Building. If their projects are permitted by code they are granted a building and zoning permit "over-the-counter." Oftentimes the Department of Licenses and Inspections issues a "refusal" in which it states that it cannot grant an "over-the-counter" permit because the proposed projects does not adhere to certain sections of the Philadelphia Code. Projects are "refused" for a variety of reasons, like for not having enough open area, for exceeding the 35-foot height limit, by constructing a multi-family home where it is zoned for single-families, or for installing a garage.
Once an application is "refused" the applicant appeals that refusal to the ZBA, in which the applicant basically makes the argument that the certain physical conditions of the property impose a hardship that impairs the applicant from reasonably developing it. The ZBA asks all applicants to vet their projects at the neighborhood level (i.e. at SOSNA).
SOSNA's Zoning Committee meetings provide neighbors with a convenient opportunity to learn about projects that will affect their block and our neighborhood. At SOSNA meetings, neighbors can speak face-to-face with the applicants to offer suggestions and criticisms of the project in question. Neighbors and members of the SOSNA Zoning Committee vote on each project and the Zoning Chair tabulates those votes before submitting a letter to the ZBA. Please note that, especially in close or contentious cases, the vote tally does not determine the final organizational position (i.e. SOSNA will not write a letter of support simply because the community votes 15-14 in support) and in some cases SOSNA cannot take a position either way and chooses instead to defer to the ZBA.
SOSNA submits letters of "support", "non-opposition", or "opposition" to the ZBA. These letters document the proceedings of the SOSNA meeting, the concerns voiced by all in attendance (whether in the majority or the minority), and any agreed-upon provisos. These provisos involve mostly zoning issues, such as inclusion of mansard roofs, pervious pavers, street trees, or exterior lighting. The SOSNA letter is sent to the ZBA, the district councilperson's office, the applicant, and is available on file at the SOSNA office for any neighbor to review.
As stated, SOSNA's role in this process is merely advisory. That means that the ZBA can choose to follow or not follow SOSNA' recommendation. SOSNA meetings are not a substitute for ZBA hearings. It is important and critical that if you are interested and affected by any zoning matter, you attend the ZBA hearing and fill out a white appearance form. This will allow you the legal right to appeal the ZBA's decision to the Court of Common Pleas or higher.
Once the ZBA grants a variance request, applicants are free to receive a zoning permit and then a building permit to commence their project.