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Historical Preservation in Philadelphia

Philadelphia contains many buildings that were built over 100 years ago; some even date back to the early part of the 18th century. In 1955, the city created the Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC) and charged it with preserving historically significant buildings. The PHC has two basic functions: identifying historically significant structures or parts of structures and reviewing projects that involve the modification or demolition of structures that have been or may be designated as historically significant.

The PHC regulates preservation through the city's zoning process. The PHC maintains a register of historically significant structures in the city. At the moment, the register contains over 20,000 properties. If physical changes are proposed for either the interior or exterior of a building on the register, and if the work requires a building permit, the owner or developer must obtain the PHC's approval before a building permit will be issued. If a project requires a rezoning or the issuance of a conditional use permit, the PHC must first review and approve the proposal. The city's Department of Licenses and Inspections will not issue a building permit for structure on either the national or city register of historical places unless and until the PHC has approved the project.

Plan to develop Chester County farm sparks controversy

Crebilly Farm comprises 322 acres of rolling rural land in Westtown Township in Chester County, one of the Pennsylvania's fastest growing communities. Fifteen years ago, the town's comprehensive plan identified this land for future residential development. Now that the future appears to be here, township officials are having second thoughts about the kind and amount of development that should be allowed.

The township's planning commission recently held a meeting to review and discuss three proposals by Toll Brothers to develop the land. Two proposals called for the construction of 200 single-family homes and 117 townhouses, a total of 317 units. A third plan includes 152 single-family homes and 243 townhouses, a total of 395 units. The three plans would add 712 units of residential housing and leave approximately 180 acres as open space.

Judge allows federal lawsuit over Bensalem mosque to continue

This blog has previously written about the decision by the Bensalem Township's to deny a zoning permit for a new mosque. In July 2016, the United States Justice Department sued the township alleging that the zoning board's denial of an application for a variance was based upon religious discrimination. In important ruling, the judge who is presiding over the lawsuit issued an order denying the township's motion to dismiss the suit.

The case began when Bensalem Masjid, a non-profit Muslim organization based in Bensalem, announced plans to build a mosque in the township to save its members from driving to mosques in other municipalities. According to the Bensalem zoning ordinance, buildings intended for use by a religious institution must be built in areas of the town zoned as "industrial." If a church or other group wishes to build in an area not zoned industrial, it must obtain a variance from the township zoning board.

New owner chosen for redevelopment of old Germantown Y

Philadelphia has many old buildings that have outlived their original use and now stand vacant. One of the most well-known of these structures is the Old Germantown YWCA. The building has stood vacant for over a decade, but a recent decision of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority may restore life to the building as a mixture of residential and commercial real estate.

The Germantown Y was long a gathering place for families, and it was one of the first YWCAs in the country to be integrated. After its prior owner Germantown Settlement went bankrupt, the Redevelopment Authority foreclosed on the building in 2009. The Authority then began to look for entities that might be able to convert the building into viable commercial and residential uses. An initial attempt failed when the council member representing Germantown vetoed the sale because it comprised only low-income apartments.

Possible church demolition prompts preservation talks

Philadelphia and its suburbs contain many churches more than a century old, and many of these churches are no longer used by an active congregation. The structures themselves, however, are often seen as a valuable architectural resource that deserves preservation, not demolition. The nature of this conflict is once again on display in the suburban township of Narberth where plans for a commercial real estate development have stirred the interest of local preservationists.

The Baptist Church of the Evangel is 125 years old and Narberth's oldest church, and it is vacant. Development plans for the site have evolved from adaptive reuse of the church to the current plan for demolishing the building and replacing it with new construction. Since all of these plans are permitted by the borough's zoning code, the borough council is once again considering the adoption of a historic preservation ordinance to give it more control over the demolition of Narberth's many historic buildings.

Court decision may affect large pipeline projects in state

This blog has observed the growing conflict between private land owners and pipeline companies over the companies' right to use the law of eminent domain to acquire pipeline right-of-way. Now, a recent decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court may be a signal that the state's eminent domain law cannot be used in that fashion.

The case in question involved underground natural gas storage, not a pipeline per se, but the court's reasoning is encouraging pipeline opponents in their fight to limit the use of eminent domain by private companies. In 2012, Pennsylvania enacted what is known as Act 13, a statute that was intended to allow oil and gas companies to use the government's power to acquire private property for their facilities. The statute has been under almost constant attack from local municipalities and environmental groups. One such case challenged the constitutionality of that portion of the act that allowed private companies to use eminent domain to acquire private land for underground natural gas storage.

Statements of Support for developer do not bind township

Real estate developers in Philadelphia and its suburbs frequently seek informal backing from zoning officials before investing money in a project. Occasionally, an informal expression of approval by one or more members of a zoning board can lead to a dispute about the board's intentions if the project is formally rejected. A recent court ruling has shown how verbal assurances of support for a project do not bind the municipality.

In 2013, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia entered into an agreement to sell 213 acres of land in Marple Township to commercial real estate developer Bruce Goodwin. Goodwin intended to redevelop the land for retail space and townhouses. Goodwin paid a $5 million non-refundable deposit as part of his winning bid for the land. After receiving what he called "statements of support" from local officials, he also spend an additional $2 million on studies and plans for the project. Unfortunately for Goodwin, the town board rejected his request to rezone a portion of the land after township residents voiced significant opposition to the project.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court decides eminent domain case

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled that a state law that allows for the seizure of private lands by companies for certain natural gas projects is unconstitutional. The ruling was unanimous and may have a significant impact on one of the biggest proposed pipelines in the state. The original rule from 2012 permitted any company the authority to take private land for the purposes of storing natural gas underground using the eminent domain process.

In reaching the decision, the court found that the rule allows private companies to take land in a manner that is unconstitutional with no direct or obvious benefit to the citizens of Pennsylvania. Oil and gas companies argued the takings provide a benefit by providing jobs but the court did not agree. The court was concerned that was not the primary reason for the rule.

Historic church headed toward 'adaptive reuse' as daycare, condos

This blog has written about numerous instances in Philadelphia where an historic church has been slated for demolition or renovation only to encounter opposition from former parishoners or other preservationists. Another historic church may have been headed for a similar fate when a developer purchased the building and announced a redevelopment plan that preserved the "interior fabric" of the church. The plan has just received approval from the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

The church, First African Baptist Church, located at 1600 Christian Street, was founded in 1809, and the current structure was built in 1906. The church is one of the city's oldest African-American churches. Last year, the building was sold; this action divided the congregation. The interior of the church fell into serious disrepair, and the building was slated for demolition. The structure was then purchased by MLK Real Estate.

Resolving disputed ownership claims for real property

As we have noted before in this blog, land is a unique form of property where mere possession does not necessary indicate ownership. In a city as old as Philadelphia, a single parcel of land may have been sold, subdivided or had its boundaries modified on dozens of occasions. Determining ownership in such cases may be necessary to secure a loan, to obtain development approval from the City or resolve the status of property bequeathed in a will.

The basic method for resolving such disputes is called an action to quiet title. As the name implies, a quite title action usually requires commencement of a law suit. The law suit has nothing to do with ambient noise; rather, it is intended to "quiet" any and all claims to the property that conflict with the claim of the party trying to establish its ownership. A quiet title action does not deal only with questions of ownership. A quiet title action may also be necessary to eliminate invalid liens or easements that have lapsed due to the passage of time. A quiet title action can also eliminate claims that were never properly reduced to writing or recorded with the county.

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