Philadelphia Zoning, Land Use, and Construction COVID-19 Update
The Ballard Spahr Zoning and Land Use Team is continuing to monitor all aspects of the City of Philadelphia land use approval process during the COVID-19 emergency, including the issuance of zoning and building permits, permissibility of construction work, and changes to court filing deadlines.
Below are updates on a number of key items, including several changes since our March 18, 2020 update. We will continue to update this list, which may change as new information becomes available. Please call or e-mail the Ballard Spahr Land Use and Zoning Team with any questions regarding this information; in particular, please consult with an attorney regarding all filing deadlines.
State and City Government – General
With limited exceptions, all Philadelphia government buildings are closed to the public, and all non-essential government operations are suspended.
Pursuant to a March 19 order, updated on March 21, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf ordered all non-life sustaining businesses in Pennsylvania to close their physical locations and to remain closed until further notice. The list of life sustaining and non-life sustaining businesses is available here.
State agencies and local officials were instructed to begin taking enforcement actions against all non-life sustaining businesses that were not compliant on March 23 at 8:00 a.m. These enforcement actions include citations, fines, license suspensions, or criminal charges, along with the forfeiture of any applicable disaster relief, and the termination of state or grant funding, including Redevelopment Assistance Capital Project funding. Requests for exemptions from business closure requirements are available via an online form available here.
In response to the Governor’s order, the Mayor of Philadelphia issued a City order, available here. The city order prohibits the operation of non-essential businesses and defines the terms “essential” and “non-essential.” The order also states that businesses performing Essential Governmental Functions, including essential construction for the City of Philadelphia, need not obtain an exemption from the commonwealth to continue work. Businesses conducting essential infrastructure projects for the City of Philadelphia will be notified by government officials. Any construction sites permitted to continue construction must practice social distancing and prioritize the health and safety of their workers. Construction requirements are discussed in greater detail below.
Furthermore, all previously scheduled public hearings remain postponed, including meetings of the Historical Commission, City Planning Commission, Art Commission, Board of Building Standards, and Civic Design Review Committee. The city has suspended the deadlines for all pending and incoming Right-To-Know requests until normal operations resume. Urgent Right-To-Know inquiries may be directed to Feige Grundman at email@example.com.
Pursuant to the Governor’s order, all construction and construction-related businesses in Pennsylvania are required to shut down their physical locations. This mandate, however, does not apply to emergency repairs or the construction of health care facilities.
In Philadelphia specifically, all non-life sustaining, non-emergency construction sites have until 5:00 p.m. on March 27 to be made safe and secure. Some extensions may be granted. Contractors must take proper measures to protect adjacent properties, remove or fasten items that are or could become loose, secure sites against trespass, and complete work necessary to protect and ensure the structural integrity of buildings under construction. Occupied residential properties must be left in a safe and habitable condition.
If a business believes that closing a construction site will have a serious life safety impact, the business may request a waiver of the enforcement deadline. The waiver must explain why the deadline cannot be met and how the business is making all good faith efforts to shut down the site properly. Waiver requests may be sent to RAfirstname.lastname@example.org, with questions directed to email@example.com and the Ballard Spahr Zoning and Land Use Team.
Department of Licenses and Inspections
L&I employees working on zoning and building permits are generally telecommuting on a case-by-case basis. The Municipal Services Building at 1401 JFK Boulevard has a small security staff on site that is receiving mail deliveries to L&I during normal business hours.
In addition to addressing the COVID-19 emergency, the city is transitioning to the online eCLIPSE permitting system. eCLIPSE is now live, but delays are anticipated. We are continuing to pursue the issuance of permits for applications submitted prior to the eCLIPSE shutdown on March 13 and are in close communication with city officials regarding next steps on all permits. At present, L&I is confirming the procedure for the issuance of billing statements and online payment for pre-eCLIPSE applications.
L&I will maintain a small crew of inspectors, who will prioritize inspections based on the severity of building and safety issues. The Department requests that all inspections be scheduled through its Interactive Voice Recognition system (IVR). Instructions for IVR are available here.
Notably, contractors will not be able to schedule inspections if their licenses are not up to date. To schedule an inspection, the contractor must update his/her insurance and tax clearance documents in eCLIPSE. To obtain a “make safe” permit for a dangerous building, an appointment must be scheduled with an L&I staff member. Instructions for requesting a “make safe” permit are available here.
L&I has suspended all deadlines for filing appeals otherwise due between March 13 and March 31. The time for filing appeals has been extended for two weeks in every instance where the original filing deadline would have fallen between March 13 and March 31. The suspension of the appeal filing deadlines may be extended further at the discretion of the Chair of the License and Inspection Review Board. All appeals currently before the Board will be stayed unless the Board determines an emergency warrants immediate consideration. An emergency is defined as anything that immediately concerns public health, safety, and welfare.
Anyone requesting an emergency hearing must complete an Emergency Hearing Appeal Form and submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, Joanna.email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org. Upon receipt of the form, the Board will either deny the request or promptly schedule an emergency hearing that will take place telephonically.
Zoning Board of Adjustment
All ZBA hearings are postponed through March 31, and will be rescheduled once the board reopens. The ZBA is suspending all deadlines for filing appeals otherwise due between March 13 and March 31. The time for filing appeals has been extended for two weeks in every instance where the original filing deadline would have fallen within this period.
Registered Community Organizations will not be penalized for postponing community meetings between now and March 31. The RCOs are encouraged to work with developers to figure out an alternative to public meetings. At this time, the city will not be changing the timelines for when a case must be heard by the Civic Design Review Committee or Zoning Board of Adjustment. These timelines will continue to apply, whether or not an RCO meeting has been held.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
By order of Gov. Tom Wolf, Pennsylvania DEP offices throughout the Commonwealth are closed through the end of March. However, much of the regional staff is telecommuting and presumably reachable in connection with inquiries on the status of pending environmental approvals/applications. The U.S. EPA remains open via telecommuting options, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also is reachable.
Zoning and building permits should still be posted on properties in the normal course, to the extent possible. Please contact our Zoning and Land Use Team for any assistance.
At least some Philadelphia Streets Department employees involved in plan approval currently are telecommuting and are actively monitoring projects. Plan Review Counter Submissions (Checklist #1) may be submitted online only through the L&I eCLIPSE system. All Plan Review Intake Submissions (Checklist #2/3/4) must be submitted electronically to StreetsROW.PlanReview@phila.gov. Developer Services Meetings deemed necessary by staff may be held remotely.
At least some Philadelphia Water Department employees currently are telecommuting and are actively monitoring projects. Applicants are encouraged to email questions to email@example.com.
The Stormwater Incentives Team has extended the Stormwater Grant application deadline to July 1. The pre-application meeting deadline has been extended as well. The team encourages individuals to email all questions to PWDStormwaterCredits@phila.gov. The account is being monitored periodically, but delays are expected.
Department of Records
The Philadelphia Department of Records is closed until the end of the month, but e-recording via third party vendors is still operating.
As of March 18, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has ordered that, except for certain essential functions, court facilities in all judicial districts in Pennsylvania shall be closed to the public from March 19 through at least April 3. The order of closure applies to the Superior Court, Commonwealth Court, Magisterial District Courts and all minor courts in Philadelphia County. In addition, all time calculations and deadlines are suspended through April 3. All evictions and ejectments are stayed, and PA Rules of Criminal Procedure 600(c), with respect to time calculations, is suspended.
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This alert is a periodic publication of Ballard Spahr LLP and is intended to notify recipients of new developments in the law. It should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. The contents are intended for general informational purposes only, and you are urged to consult your own attorney concerning your situation and specific legal questions you have.