Guac blocked: How overlapping civic groups can stand in the way of a simple taco stand

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

As City Council voted today to simplify the zoning code, an attempt to open a taco stand in West Philly shows how overlappping civic groups complicate the process.

NO-BRAINER: Vanessa Jerolmack thought her plan to open a taco stand on her commercially zoned lot would be easy. Instead, it turned into an eight-month battle.
Mark Stehle

The battle to simplify the city’s zoning code can seem like a game of tug of war — as quickly as reforms are made, some City Council members line up to undo them. Today, Council is expected to vote on a bill Councilman Bobby Henon has introduced that would tip the scales, at least a little, back toward simplicity.

Henon’s bill seeks to set firmer boundaries for the civic organizations, known as Registered Community Organizations or RCOs, that get to weigh in on the zoning process. Their number and influence have exploded in recent years, thanks to some poorly crafted regulations during the last series of  “tugs” on Council. While Henon’s proposal could sound like an attempt to curtail community input, the recent travails of a food-truck owner in West Philadelphia shows that his revisions may not be coming soon enough.

Vanessa Jerolmack had a simple vision: To turn a vacant lot she owned on Baltimore Avenue, near 51st Street, into a permanent headquarters for her nomadic taco truck. A native Angeleno with a flair for Mexican cuisine, she debuted her mobile restaurant last spring. 

The empty lot was adjacent to her home and she and her husband had planted a garden there for years. They soon discovered it was zoned for use as a restaurant. Combining the commercially zoned land with her blossoming business seemed like a no-brainer.

Of course, in Philadelphia things that seem like they should be easy rarely are.  Although the approvals Jerolmack needed from the city were routine — variances to allow the sale of takeout food and to erect a fence around the lot — she was required to notify nearly all the neighbors within a block of her property and meet with a bevy of RCOs, each with the power to send influential letters of support or opposition to the zoning board.   

“I contacted all the RCOs that I knew were always involved with zoning meetings in the past,” Jerolmack, a seven-year resident of Cedar Park, wrote in an email. “I was not aware that there were actually six RCOs for this neighborhood!”

And that was only counting the “local” RCOs. In Jerolmack’s case, there were almost twice as many “issue-based” RCOs — wide-ranging groups that don’t necessarily attend neighborhood zoning meetings, but must be notified about variance requests. The city’s zoning laws place the onus on applicants to figure out which RCOs have an interest in a given property, a task that can be difficult because there is no limit on how many can be involved in a given area and many places in the city have numerous overlapping groups. One spot, 40th and Lancaster Avenue, has 23 RCOs converging on a single intersection.

Jerolmack admits that it was “purely [her] mistake” for not researching the neighborhood groups, but what seemed like a simple oversight would soon turn into a big headache. 

Gregory Lyles, a representative from a local RCO she failed to contact, Southwest Philadelphia District Services (SPDS), heard that she was meeting with other groups. 

“[He] went to my zoning hearing and forced me to postpone the proceedings because I had not met with his group,” she said. “No one among the active community RCOs had ever heard of this SPDS group.”

Perhaps Jerolmack could be excused for not being familiar with SPDS: It had only recently registered as an RCO and claimed a territory that stretched from the Philadelphia airport to 30th Street Station, encompassing all of Southwest and almost half of West Philadelphia. In a phone interview Lyles says the boundaries were drawn from where SPDS members “lived, worked or went to school.” 

Lyles acknowledged he lives in West Oak Lane and that many of the group’s members had grown up in the area, but didn’t necessarily still live there. He asserted that his group’s interest in the area — and Jerolmack’s business — was evidenced by its headquarters inside the nearby Kingsessing Rec Center, where SPDS runs a chess club and pee wee football league.

Strangely, the rec center’s address does not appear on the group’s RCO application — their two official contacts are listed as Lyles’ home and a vacant storefront at 5213 Woodland Ave. Even stranger, SPDS’s financial disclosure documents list the group’s headquarters as a home in Pottstown owned by SPDS President Michael Ross.

Whatever their connection to the neighborhood, when Jerolmack finally scheduled a meeting with SPDS (and all of the other local RCOs, again), she says Lyles got straight to the point.

“[Lyles] only asked me how my business would benefit them and what I would donate to their organization,” she said. “I told him that I would love to help my community, but I am a brand-new, tiny establishment and I couldn’t offer much.”

But representatives of other RCOs went further, loudly protesting that Lyles’ requests were verging on illegality. Jerolmack says Lyles pressed on, eventually “suggesting [he] would not support my zoning request unless I promised to support him with money or donations.”

Lyles, for his part insists he “didn’t ask for a cash donation” and just “suggested” different activities at the rec center Jerolmack could support.

“We told them the different [activities] they could donate some time or something toward,” he said. “Then, it was also said that some people make cash donations to our organizations. And you can write it off on your taxes.”

The meeting ended with all parties aggrieved. Lyles said he thought Jerolmack “didn’t support the community” and opposed her variance in a letter to the Zoning Board of Adjustment. 

The other RCOs were more sympathetic, and the zoning board approved the variance — but the eight-month ordeal left a bad taste in Jerolmack’s mouth. Ultimately, she said she was less upset about Lyles’ actions than the redundant and generally “frustrating” RCO process.

Councilman Henon says his bill will address at least some of the issues she encountered.

The bill would eliminate issue-based RCOs from neighborhood meetings, and require the Planning Commission to deliver applicants a list of the RCOs they need to contact. Council members could select a “coordinating RCO” that would rally other groups for a single meeting. Henon’s proposal would also limit the geographic size of local RCO groups to no more than 20,000 properties — which would force SPDS, for example, to cut its service areas by a third.

“We’re adding definition and clarity to the boundaries of an RCO, because right now, there are none,” Henon said. “It’s to make them a little more accountable to the community they’re supposed to be representing.”

It’s far from perfect. There’s still no cap on how many RCOs can be in a single area, and Council members will continue to have an outsize influence throughout the zoning process.

But it’s a start. Or at least another tug in the right direction.

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