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ZBA: Rochelle Ave. House Can Continue as Multi-Family Unit

WICA's appeal rejected by zoning board.

ZBA: Rochelle Ave. House Can Continue as Multi-Family Unit

In an uncharacteristically marathon hearing, the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment voted to keep a Rochelle Avenue property a multiple-family home, despite a civic association's appeal to alter its zoning use.

Holding up a Licenses and Inspections decision to grant a rental license to 102 Rochelle Ave., the zoning board unanimously struck down an appeal from the Wissahickon Interested Citizens Association to change the property's zoning due to a lapse in use.

Essentially, the appeal revolved around the city's decision to allow the property to continue as a multi-family property. Formerly owned by the estate of Edwin Lasota, the property is zoned as multi-family but ceased renewing rental licenses in 2006. In 2012, Lasota's estate renewed the license before selling the property to David Brannigan. The developer then received his own license from the city, in addition to building and plumbing permits.

However, WICA argued the six-year lapse should have caused License and Inspections to at least question a new application, let alone blindly approving it.

The case downtown Wednesday afternoon brought to the forefront the struggle some residents are undertaking to wrestle the neighborhood away from rental properties and absentee landlords.

Presenting the civic's case, attorney Hal Schirmer called on neighbors Jeff Allegretti and Sandra Dunn in an effort to establish that the former owner never intended on renting the property again, and that flipped houses such as this one are detrimental to the neighborhood.

"My interest in this case is that our neighborhood is under siege from developers... people are buying and renting properties to Drexel, St. Joseph's students. And it's getting out of hand," Allegretti said.

Bill O'Brien, attorney for the new property owner, argued WICA's entire argument was off base. He presented zoning maps confirming that many duplex and triplex properties exist throughout Wissahickon. Further, due to the amount of renovation his client took on, Brannigan intended to rent to young professionals, not college students.

"The civic has a belief that the triplex, by definition, is detrimental to the neighborhood. But a triplex with new hardwood floors, granite counter tops (and other updates) attracts young professionals that will lift this block up," O'Brien said.

Aside from the philosophical debate about how to appropriately gentrify a neighborhood, the case's decision largely revolved around whether the city should have allowed permitted licenses.

Schirmer's main point was the city violated the law by approving a rental license, something that should have been annually renewed.

Michael Fink, deputy commissioner for L & I, testified that the only way that department discontinues a zoning use is a change in structure or significant violations demonstrated that the use discontinued. A lapse in renewing a rental license would not be enough—especially since property taxes were always paid on a property assessed as multi-family.

Additionally, Brannigan requested the former property owner present him proof of zoning as a sale condition. He testified that he wouldn't have bought the property without that.

"We rely on a system that is in place. No one says it's perfect, but if we buy a property, we have to be able to trust what the city tell us is correct," he said.

After the nearly hour-long hearing, ZBA members Martin Bednarek, Lynette Brown-Sow and Samuel Staten all voted to deny the appeal.

WICA has 30 deals to appeal the decision.

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