Philadelphia City Council Upholds 50-foot Stream Buffers

Finally, and for the third time, City Council upholds 50-foot stream buffers in Philadelphia.

Part of the zoning code recommended by the Zoning Commission and passed by Philadelphia’s City Council in 2011 included a 50-foot setback from rivers and streams for future building. This is a commonsense precaution against disaster, discouraging development in the floodplain, while simultaneously leaving room for greater public access to local waterways. However, in June 2012, Councilmember Bobby Henon introduced amendments to the code that would, among other things, allow buildings already within the 50-foot buffer to to be exempted from the ordinance should their owners want to expand. According to local planning news source PlanPhilly, this would effect between 40-50% of all waterfront parcels along the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers.

The Civic Vision, a plan developed over an intensive year of transparent interaction between planning experts and tens of thousands of Philadelphia citizens, called for 100-foot buffers. But over the course of implementation- interim zoning, and the push-and-pull of the emerging zoning code- that number became 50 feet, a compromise, but one most stakeholders agreed upon. So it was a surprise when Councilmembers Henon and Bill Green began talking about changes to the stream buffers. One of the intentions of the new comprehensive zoning code was to remove Council from these kinds of planning decisions, for the most part.

Stream buffers create a natural area between a waterway and development to protect people and property from flooding during storms, and to help filter pollutants and keep water quality high. The importance of such natural buffer areas is even more obvious in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Many groups testified in favor of the buffer at a Rules Committee hearing held last week. Only one group, the Development Workshop represented by Craig Schelter, voiced opposition. Development Workshop has opposed stream buffers all along, and in fact, has opposed many of the changes that came about through the four year process of revamping city codes and planning processes. But for thousands of Philadelphians who have long pushed for reasonable, predictable planning that preserved access to the river for residents, and that offered some protection to the city’s environmental assets, yesterday’s vote was welcome and a long time coming.


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