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April 18, 2024

On the ballot: Should Philly provide community groups legal support in zoning cases?

Primary voters on April 23 will decide if a system should be in place to help neighborhood organizations who are sued by developers.

2024 Election Ballot Questions
Ballot question 2024 Edmond Dantès/

A ballot question for Tuesday's primary election asks if the city should help with lawsuits against registered community organizations, also known as RCOs.

On top of picking party nominees for auditor general and attorney general, voters in the April 23 primary election will also consider if Philadelphia should provide neighborhood groups legal support in zoning cases. 

Tuesday's ballot question proposes a change to the Home Rule Charter, Philly's version of a constitution, asking if the city should create a system to help with lawsuits against registered community organizations, also known as RCOs. Polls are open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, and voters can find their polling place with a tool from the Office of the City Commissioners. Mail-in or absentee ballots can also be dropped off ahead of time at satellite election offices

The question appears on the ballot as: Should the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to require the City to provide for the indemnification and defense of registered community organizations in connection with claims made against them arising directly out of their lawful participation in the City’s zoning variance process?

Philadelphia has over 200 RCOs, and their main jobs are providing input on zoning rules. If a homeowner or landowner needed a variance to build something on their property, that matter would be brought to the RCO for review. 

In some cases, those who might be unhappy with an RCO's decision — often developers — bring lawsuits against the organizations for their role in the process. According to the Committee of Seventy, the suits can be costly for RCOs and limit community input in decision-making. 

Voting "yes" on this ballot measure supports city officials creating a system to help shoulder the cost of these lawsuits, including settlement payments and lost cases. 

Voting "no" on this ballot measure opposes the city's involvement, and the RCOs would continue as usual. 

Former Council President Darrell Clarke introduced the charter amendment for this ballot question before his term ended in January. The council unanimously approved the resolution in November 2023. 

A yes from voters would be a pretty big win for the neighborhood groups. In 2013, the Old City Civic Association had to disband because it had been sued by developers too many times and couldn't afford the insurance.