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Philadelphia Real Estate Law Blog

Jewelers' Row dispute moves to Historical Commission

Several weeks ago, this blog wrote about the controversy surrounding the proposal by Toll Brothers to demolish five properties on a stretch of Sansom Street known as Jewelers' Row in Philadelphia and replace them with a 16-story condominium tower. At that time, the city notified the developer that the commercial real estate project must be considered by the City's Design Review committee before demolition can begin. Now, the dispute has found a new forum - the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Commission.

The Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia invoked a different land use law by filing a petition with the Commission asking for review by the Committee on Historic Designation to determine whether the five buildings should be placed on the city's Register of Historic Places. The letter requesting inclusion on the register said that the buildings were "significant" because of their connection with one of the city's early publishers, Henry C. Lea. According to the letter, the buildings are also representative of commercial "street architecture" of the late 19th century.

PennDOT to control digital signage on East Market Street

Most Philadelphians think of zoning as a set of regulations that controls the kind and size of buildings that can be erected on a specified tract of land. Zoning regulations also affect another important aspect of commercial real estate: the use of buildings as sites for large outdoor signs. The digital age has brought with it new techniques for creating and operating outdoor advertising, and the City of Philadelphia is attempting to cope with these advances by creating commercial advertising districts in which the type and size of digital signs is subject to review.

In 2011, the city created the Market Street East Advertising District to control digital advertising screens on East Market Street between Seventh and Thirteenth Streets. The district allows developers to add digital signage to commercial properties that incorporate public improvements of at least $10 million. The creation of such districts is ultimately subject to the approval of the Federal Highway Administration, and it now appears that the city has failed to satisfy some FHA requirements necessary to retain that control.

Understanding title insurance in Pennsylvania

Anyone who has bought a home in Philadelphia and borrowed a portion of the purchase price from a bank or other lender in the last forty years has been required to purchase something called "title insurance." The premium for the title insurance policy is generally one of the smaller expenses paid by the buyer at closing, and most people pay it without asking too many questions. In this post, we want to review the role of title insurance in a residential real estate transaction and help home buyers understand what it is and how it works.

Ownership of most kinds of property can be determined by possession or, as in the case of automobiles, by a formal registration system run by the state. Real property is different because possession is not always the same as legal ownership. In order to provide a reliable method of verifying the existence of interests in real property, Pennsylvania and all other states have established a system of recording all transactions involving real property. When a person buys a house, the seller executes a deed conveying ownership to the buyer. This deed is recorded with the county in which the property is located, along with any other document that creates an interest in the land, such as a mortgage or mechanics' lien. The recording of these transfers or conveyances allows the public to determine who owns a tract of land and whether anyone holds an interest in the land.

Sale of Greylock Estate complicated by liens and easements

A large residential property stands vacant, leaving a mortgage in default and unpaid back taxes. The property is worth more than the accumulated mortgage deficiency and unpaid taxes, so the solution seems simple: sell the property and pay the taxes and mortgage arrearage out of the proceeds. The seeming simplicity of this solution can run into trouble when the property is a historic mansion in Chestnut Hill and any sale can entail a number of real estate disputes.

Greylock is a Jacobean mansion in Chestnut Hill that was built in 1909 as a retirement home for a steel magnate. After serving as offices for a non-profit organization, the house has stood vacant for several years. Now, the holder of a mortgage on the estate wants to recoup the unpaid amount of the loan and to pay off back taxes by selling the property. Accumulated taxes are approximately $90,000, and but the mortgage deficiency is undisclosed. Other parties have filed liens against the property that must also be paid. The Office of Property Assessment says the property has a fair market value of $2,340,800. At the request of the mortgage holder, a sheriff's sale of the property has been set for Nov. 1, 2016.

More review needed for Jewelers' Row condo tower

Lying just one block from Independence Hall, Jewelers' Row is one of Philadelphia's most historically significant merchant districts. Since 1851, the district has been home to hundreds of jewelers. Now, however, a condominium development project will forever change the face of Jewelers' Row - if it receives approval from the City's Design Review Committee.

The 18 story tower comprises 80 condominium units that would replace five properties in the 700 block of Sansom Street. The project received conditional approval from the City's Department of Licenses and Inspections, but a recent snag threatens to at least slow the project and delay the start of construction.

Denial of variance may force treatment center to close

In Philadelphia and its suburbs, zoning boards often operate under the radar. Their decisions on rezonings, conditional use permits, map overlays and other land use issues receive little publicity unless a decision threatens the economic well-being of another business. Such a dispute is just beginning in Easton, where the zoning board has denied a use variance request that may force an alcohol and drug treatment center to close.

The Northeast Treatment Center has operated in Easton for 21 years, but its future is now threatened by a redevelopment plan that calls for the renovation of the building into 28 high-end apartments. The treatment center thought that it had an easy solution: move to another building about three blocks away. Unfortunately, treatment centers are not permitted in the zoning district where the center's potential new home stands.

Pennsylvania landowners appeal natural gas pipeline decision

There are a variety of important concerns that arise in situations of eminent domain; one of these dictates when private land can be taken for public use and how the owners should be properly compensated. A natural gas company recently received permission from a Pennsylvania court to run a liquid natural gas pipeline under the farmland of three Pennsylvania farms. The natural gas pipeline was granted the power of eminent domain to take a portion of the land for the pipeline project. The property owners, however, recently filed an appeal of the court's decision, which allowed condemnation of their property.

The landowners previously argued that the natural gas company lacks the authority to exercise eminent domain over their property. The property owners and their representative argued that under Pennsylvania state law, a private company, such as the natural gas company, lacks the authority to exercise eminent domain even if there is an element of public use at issue. Pennsylvania courts have ruled in similar cases that the natural gas company is a public utility with the ability to exercise eminent domain.

New zoning overlay may lead to shopping center revival

This blog has on several occasions written about the efforts of neighborhoods to stop or significantly modify various development proposals in the Philadelphia area. Now, a decision by a local zoning board to approve a significant re-zoning to allow an expanded commercial real estate development appears to have the approval of all concerned parties - including the adjacent neighborhoods.

The Towamencin Village Shopping Center has been vacant for several years. In a recent action, the Towamencin board of supervisors voted to amend the township zoning ordinance and approve a zoning overlay map that will allow redevelopment of the shopping center. The residents at the recent meeting expressed unanimous support for the action.

Justice Department sues Bensalem Township over mosque denial

Bensalem Township is Bucks County's largest municipality, and it contains temples, synagogues and churches; however, there aren't any mosques. In 2014 the township's zoning board refused to grant a variance to allow construction of a mosque, and it has now been accused of illegal discrimination in a lawsuit filed by the United States Department of Justice.

The Muslim congregation - known as a masjid - that wants to build the mosque, first began looking for a location for its mosque in 2008. When Bensalem Township denied the masjid's request for a variance to build the mosque in an area not zoned for religious institutions, the masjid filed suit in United States District Court accusing the township of discriminating against it.

Developer sues township to recover development costs

A developer who was forced to abandon plans for an ambitious project on land owned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has now sued the township that repeatedly rejected his proposals. Like many real estate disputes, this lawsuit was generated by frustrated expectations.

In 2014, the developer outbid several competitors to win the right to acquire and redevelop 213 heavily forested acres in Marple Township. The developer bid $47 million for the development rights, and it also agreed to pay a non-refundable deposit of $5 million to the Archdiocese. The developer's first plan proposed hundreds of town homes and several big-box stores, but the township rejected the plan as calling for too much density. The developer also requested a change in the zoning of the land from institutional and residential to "planned community." The redevelopment plan was also opposed by people living in the vicinity because it threatened to destroy one of the last undeveloped parcels in the county.

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