This is a post that should be obvious to most of you dear readers, but it’s not for most Philadelphians who live here.
The zoning process has not, has never been, and will never be a forum for you to talk about your property taxes.
In fact, developers love it when you spend a whole zoning meeting or a ZBA hearing talking nothing BUT your property taxes. As long as you don’t say one thing with respect to the zoning issue being discussed–you’re actually not complaining about his project and you certainly are not going to be an impediment between him and the permits he’s seeking.
I’m not going to get into the specific circumstances that led me to write about this topic–but let’s just say there’s still plenty of people who are convinced that if a project comes to their own community seeking zoning approval that bitching about your own property tax bill will somehow influence the Zoning Board of Adjustment’s outcome in how they vote up-or-down on a particular development project.
Is the ZBA made up of some really uncaring people that were specially-selected to just hate you? No.
The Zoning Board of Adjustment has one job to do: they review permits that L&I have denied because the project falls outside the Zoning Code. The Zoning Code only regulates three things:
- The maximum size a building can be on a given lot type
- What the lot is allowed to be used for (residential, commercial, industrial)
That’s it. Taxes aren’t mentioned anywhere in the zoning code. In fact, it’s quite unconstitutional for a municipal government to begin regulating what two private people agree to buy or sell a privately-owned house for. Now there are price caps on rents in some areas of the United States, but rent control apartments have the nasty side effect of convincing landlords to take less care of their rental properties over time. That’s mainly why New York City stopped expanding rent control and why Philadelphia doesn’t have it. Philly does have a rent-hike cap for long-term renters who stay in the same unit for a long period of time but it’s only enforced if you take your landlord to court and challenge him on it. Nobody sues their landlord for this.
Because the zoning code does not talk about taxes or property assessments at all, when you bring it up at your local community zoning meeting or at the ZBA–it’s mostly just hot air and time-filler.
Worse: if you never raise any valid zoning-related objection to a project, that basically means you just endorsed the project. If you took off work and paid to come downtown to sit in the ZBA hearing room for an hour and only talked about your taxes and nothing else–you just told the ZBA you want the project built.
If that’s the only objection the ZBA is hearing from the community–then there’s no zoning objection being made, so they’ll approve it.
It’s taken at least 10+ years for me to start seeing anti-gentrification types wise-up to this reality and start to come up with zoning-related objections to projects. Some of the objections were really creative. In one zoning case I saw a community group complain about the absence of parking. When the parking was added, then the objection was changed to “too much parking”, forcing the developer to go back to planning again. That zoning case was heard in front of the ZBA three separate times and in front of the Philadelphia Planning Commission two times before the ZBA finally made a decision on it [it was approved].
Mind you–while that bit of trickery certainly was creative about delaying a development project, the same objectors never really got their point across to who really needed to hear it: City Council.
City Council is the one setting your property tax rate. Given the rate of increases–we’re due again for another tax rate hike coming from City Council this spring. The Office of Property Assessment is the one who is actually valuing your house; not the ZBA. Even then, complaining to City Council about your assessment is still going to be more effective than venting at a community zoning meeting where no one can do anything, or at the ZBA who also has no power to do anything for you and is forbidden from rejecting variances solely because of its tax implications.
So. If you’ve gotten this far and paid attention, I’m gonna give you some tips on valid zoning-related objections. See if they apply to that zoning project you don’t like:
The proposal is too dense. If the zoning code calls for a single-family use but the project is a multi-family and there are next-door properties selling as single-family, then the project is too dense and the property owner has not demonstrated a hardship that he can’t work within the confines of the zoning code.
Parking required but there’s no proposal to build any. The proposal doesn’t include enough parking but the refusal says parking is required. Where will the cars go?
Uniformity. The use being proposed (let’s say it’s a strip club) is far out of line with the adjoining use of an adjacent or nearby property (say, an elementary school)
The zoning (CMX-2) calls for ground-floor commercial but the developer won’t build any. In many cases where single-family residential is not permitted by-right you can torpedo a house on a CMX-2 lot by demanding a storefront go on the ground floor as the zoning requires, and point out any nearby CMX-2 property in the neighborhood that’s being used successfully for that purpose (some other nearby commercial that’s got a storefront). It helps if this project is also on a “neighborhood commercial corridor”.
Now, this won’t guarantee that you’ll defeat a proposal at the Zoning Board of Adjustment–you’ll have to argue and articulate before the ZBA how the property owner can comply with the zoning code and be able to use the property for something. If you present an objection that makes it obvious the property owner can do absolutely nothing in the short-term with the lot, you’ve now proven the developer has a hardship and that’s a strong reason to grant the permits either by the ZBA or if the developer takes it to court–the judge may approve it.
One thing is always certain: if all you have to complain about is your tax bill, you will get nowhere at zoning or with the ZBA.
(BONUS: “We want affordable housing!!!” is the exact same thing as complaining about house prices and it has the same effect as complaining about your assessment+taxes which is a function of real estate value. The ZBA cannot regulate the price of real estate because that’s not in the Zoning Code and the ZBA never votes up/down on any proposal based on what its retail price is going to be.)