Several Registered Community Organizations and community members came together at Wissahickon Charter School on January 29. |Nichole Currie for Germantown Info Hub

Grassroots organizations typically serve the purpose of enriching their community. Whether it’s mentoring youth, providing activities for neighbors or street clean-ups, community organizations can offer promising changes. And eight years ago, across the city, these organizations were given the opportunity to do more.

On Aug. 26 2012, Philadelphia introduced the Registered Community Organization (RCO) program. The program allows community organizations to register with the city’s planning commission to learn what development projects will be introduced in their neighborhoods.

Patrick Jones, committee member of the Democratic 59th Ward in Germantown, explains “An RCO is not an actual entity within itself. An RCO is just a label that is put on an organization that was already established.”

Once an organization is registered, it can review zoning applications submitted to the Department of Licenses and Inspections for proposed projects within its geographic boundary. If a developer does not need a zoning variance, an RCO will still be notified about new proposals.

Sandra Wilbur, member of Germantown’s 12th Democratic Ward, said joining an RCO is a smart choice for neighbors.

“We, as a people, have a right to know what’s going on in our neighborhood besides the homicides,” Wilber said.

Germantown currently has 15 RCOs that usually meet each month to share information regarding new or pending zoning. Any organization can become registered with the city after following specific guidelines:

  • Organizations must hold regularly scheduled, open, community meetings.
  • Leadership must be chosen by the organization members-at-large at regularly scheduled elections.
  • The organization serves a geographic area with no more than 20,000 parcels.

Ward committees, community service organizations and neighborhood improvement districts frequently register to become RCOs. Some Germantown RCOs efforts branch out beyond effecting zoning and new development.

Joe McCarthy is a member of the Baynton Neighbors Organization. With the help of several other RCOs, the group is working to make Germantown a “historic neighborhood”, like Society Hill and Old City.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission grants “historic neighborhood” status in order to recognize and preserve the historic characteristics of a neighborhood. Neighborhoods can be nominated on the commission website. Geographic boundaries are discussed by community organizations and the city to agree on the area that will be considered “historic.” Most developers will need to go through the planning commission if construction might remove historic character.

So it basically has to do with exterior renovations and planning and a little bit of zoning,” McCarthy said. “For example, If a house was made of stone, it has to remain stone.”

Recently Rev. Chester A. Williams, founder of Chew and Belfied Neighbors Club Inc., held a meeting for all Germantown registered organizations to discuss major development projects like Wayne Junction and Maplewood Mall. Williams said coming together with other RCO’s gives them “strength in numbers.”

Williams plans to hold several more meetings with Germantown RCOs in the future. He said that becoming registered has has allowed effective communication between the city and his organization. “An RCO means that the community has a voice in what they want in their neighborhood.”

RCO applications and renewals are accepted by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission from June 1 to June 30 each year. Once accepted, registration must be renewed every two years. The Planning Commission holds a yearly information session for potential RCO applicants.