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July 27,  2011

Council approves changes
to redevelopment law

County Council enacted the administration's version of needed changes in the section of the Unified Development Code covering redevelopment of commercial and industrial properties that have fallen short of their economic usefulness, but the measure inspired considerably more rancor than would be expected over one that passed unanimously.

Before final passage the legislative body cut through two peripheral issues, took a few swipes at the panel that is supposed to guide it through the complexity of some land-use decisions and rebelled against its president and one of its members who is sponsoring  rival legislation.

The 11-to-nil vote came after Joseph Reda and David Tackett drew considerable praise from their colleagues for what was described as nearly a year of work to devise and bring to a vote an ordinance which alters some key provisions in a law which no one seems ready to dispute is working as intended. Even Robert Weiner, sponsor of the rival ordinance, joined in the plaudits calling the Reda-Tackett ordinance "a positive step in the right direction."

John Cartier said that even before the so-called 'reform' amendment, redevelopment provisions in the code "have produced real gains for the local community." He said he has yet to hear any criticism of the more than 50 projects that have been approved so far. He cited as an example conversion of an automotive towing service yard into an attractive commercial strip along Philadelphia Pike in his eastern Brandywine Hundred district.

Tackett acknowledged that the ordinance "may not go as far as some would like it to go," but said it does address many of the issues raised about the existing law. In essence, the law provides for moderating some of the standards in the development code, speeding up the approval process and other incentives to encourage restoring  under-used property to new life. That, it is said, is an alternative to building on undeveloped 'greenfields'.

Reda noted that the measure put before Council on July 26 was a substitute for the original ordinance, which drew criticism as being too lenient and favorable to development interests. In particular, he said, it eliminates 'paper redevelopment' --  the possibility that a property could qualify as a redevelopment site if a project there had received approval in the past but had not been built. The substitute also excludes residential and agricultural properties from qualifying as redevelopment sites.

Weiner zeroed in on the absence of a requirement for  a traffic-impact study in connection with a redevelopment project which involves rezoning. When he attempted to offer an amendment that would add such a requirement he was unable to obtain a parliamentary seconding to bring it into consideration.

That attempt came after Weiner had made a comparatively lengthy speech, complete with Power Point slides, about the merits of his rival legislation which obviously tried the patience of several Council members. Whether or not Weiner will bring his measure to a Council vote is uncertain, but even he has said that, if so, it would have virtually no chance of passage. Some developers and related business persons have claimed Weiner's ordinance is so restrictive that it would stifle redevelopment.

Both the original and the substitute versions of the  Reda-Tackett ordinance were drafted by the Department of Land Use and had the backing of County Executive Paul Clark, who said he will sign the substitute into law quickly. It will not apply, however, to any redevelopment proposal now working its way through the approval process.

The Planning Board, in a seven-to-one decision, differed from the department and recommended that Council reject the original Reda-Tackett ordinance. Some of its several objections were met in the substitute. It also has recommended rejection of Weiner's proposal, calling instead for further consideration with a view toward a single measure to include desirable elements of both.

Council president Thomas Kovach wanted to refer the Reda-Tackett substitute back to the board to obtain a new recommendation, arguing that a Council procedural rule required re-referral after substantive changes had been made in proposed legislation. Reda, Tackett and other Council members objected to what would have been a resultant delay. At an executive committee meeting two hours before Council's plenary session, Tackett moved to change that rule and his motion was approved on a voice vote with only Kovach dissenting.

Pointing out that there has never been such a re-referral since the rule was adopted, Council's lawyer Carol Dulin said that such would not be required if changes in the proposed ordinance did not necessitate changing its title. That, Kovach argued, meant that "before it hits the floor you could change [an] ordinance dramatically." He indicated that he felt that had happened with the Reda-Tackett substitute.

Reda said the rule change "doesn't have anything to do with the ordinance we're going to consider tonight." But Michael McDermott, an attender at the committee meeting who identified himself as "a member of the public," pointed out that the posted meeting agenda justified a revision two days after the statutory deadline for posting public meeting notices on the grounds that it was necessary "because the conflict between current rules and the desired procedure is pertinent to an ordinance on the Council agenda for July 26." No Council member responded to that apparent  discrepancy.

Council also unanimously confirmed the appointment of Ruth Visvardis to the planning board. She replaces Mark Weinberg, whom Clark did not nominate  for re-appointment on the grounds that his 10 years on the board made a change desirable. Weinberg has taken several positions counter to Clark's.

During the executive committee meeting Councilman George Smiley rhetorically asked, "How much non-relevant points of fact go into [board] decisions?" He added, "We're going to make an appointment tonight that will rectify that."

2011. All rights reserved.