Philadelphia’s Primary Election is approaching, and the role of Registered Community Organizations (RCOs) in zoning variance processes is a crucial issue. A proposed city charter amendment aims to provide legal support, but RCOs are worried about resources and intimidation. Two Germantown RCOs evaluate the impact of this decision on their community engagement and sustainability.

Photo from Canva.

Next month, Philadelphia residents will cast their Primary Election ballots to choose final round party-specific candidates for various nationwide seats like President, U.S. Senator, Pennsylvania Attorney General, and many other representatives. And like other elections, residents will also be allowed to vote on a Ballot Question. This time, the ballot question has significant implications for registered community organizations (RCOs).

The April ballot question will ask: Should the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to require the City to provide for the indemnification and defense of registered community organizations in connection with claims made against them arising directly out of their lawful participation in the City’s zoning variance process?

Zoning rules dictate how land and buildings can be utilized and constructed. When a landowner requests an exception from the standard zoning rules, known as a variance, community organizations called Registered Community Organizations (RCOs) provide feedback on how those rules should be applied in their neighborhoods. Sometimes, RCOs face lawsuits (or threatened lawsuits) related to their participation in the variance request process, which can be expensive and stifle community input. 

If you vote “yes” on this ballot question, you support a City requirement to create a system that will help RCOs pay for the expenses associated with defending against such lawsuits, including the costs connected with losing or settling the lawsuits.

This charter amendment was introduced by Former City Council President Darrell Clarke after he observed and heard rumors of developers enacting and threatening lawsuits against RCOs in the city. In the past five years, RCOs in Bustleton, Old City, Fishtown, and other areas were affected by lawsuits, leaving them to ponder their futures, suspend operations,  or even disband wholly.

Deneene Brockington, Chair of the Penn Knox Neighborhood Association (PKNA), says this bill is a “start” towards providing more resources for community groups. Though RCOs significantly impact their surrounding communities, these groups are volunteer-led and operated. 

Brockington says there are many things, especially organizing and info-sharing tools, that volunteer groups do without any fiscal support from the city that are important to run operations. She names a Zoom account for virtual meetings and a website to share information as two primary tools RCOs need to function. 

She asks, “If some RCOs in other communities can’t afford these basic materials, how could they afford legal fees and support?” Brockington notes that PKNA has suggested annual dues to help cover some of these tools.

Christopher Edwards, President of the Baynton Hill Neighbors Association (BHNA), believes that the City’s zoning process could be intimidating to some RCO volunteers who participate. He also points out that BHNA relies on volunteers to fund the group and do the work, so they don’t have the ability to get involved in every project. 

He said the fear of potential lawsuits could prevent BHNA from participating in the zoning process. While they appreciate being a part of it, they don’t have the time and resources to deal with such legal matters. Instead, they may opt for other ways to press politicians to safeguard community interests.

Edwards adds that while they have not had many zoning requests as a lead RCO, “should things change and we continue to not have guaranteed protection by the City, we will have to consider if it is worth participating in the current formal structure.”

Both BHNA and PKNA representatives say their respective organizations have not been sued. While we have previously identified issues with RCOs in other parts of the city, we have not found any evidence of RCOs in Germantown that have been sued. We have also contacted multiple other Germantown RCOs and have yet to receive a response.

The Primary Election happens on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. The last day to register and be eligible to vote in this election is April 8, and the deadline to apply for a mail-in or absentee ballot is April 16. You can find information on registering and applying for a mail-in/absentee ballot by visiting the PA Voter Services website. You can find your polling location on the same website.