On December 6 the City Council Committee on Rules discussed a bill to exempt the Cobbs Creek golf course development from zoning restrictions preventing clearing trees on steep slopes and limiting the height of fences and buildings.
Ordinarily developers seeking exemptions from such zoning requirements have to seek approval from the City’s Zoning Board of Adjustment, which entails speaking with and gaining support from neighborhood groups. The bill, introduced by Councilmember Curtis Jones, whose district includes the golf courses, would mean that the West Conshohocken-based Cobbs Creek Foundation, which is controlled by the billionaire Maguire family and has already removed over 100 acres of trees after signing a 70-year (including extensions) lease for $1 with the City, could proceed without any further public approval.
At the hearing, most testimony in favor of the bill — including from state senator Vincent Hughes as well as educators and residents of neighborhoods near the golf course — focused on the historic legacy of the golf course and the educational programming that will be funded by projected profits from the course. Others spoke in favor of the course redevelopment as anti-blight work.
Philadelphia Parks & Recreation commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell addressed the exemptions proposed in the bill, saying that nullifying the height restrictions would allow the foundation to build planned fences and buildings and that clearing trees on steep slopes was necessary to complete restoration work on Cobbs Creek and its tributaries running through the course.
Cobbs Creek Foundation president Jeff Shanahan elaborated on that point, saying that 10 acres of trees on steep slopes needed to be cleared for creek restoration, an additional half-acre for a retention pond, and 2.75 acres for re-routing two holes on the course. According to Shanahan’s calculations, that is 13.25 acres of trees on steep slopes to be cut down.
Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson asked several pointed questions she said came from environmental groups, but she did not oppose the bill. She voiced her desire to address the City’s rule against building on steep slopes on a citywide basis, but it was unclear what she meant by that statement. Grid asked for clarification on the remark, but has not yet heard back from her office.
Jones agreed, noting that the rule, which he authored, was meant to prevent the clearing of trees to construct buildings on steep slopes. He had not been thinking about golf course renovations.
“Steep slope rules are there for a reason,” said Lawrence Szmulowicz (whose letter opposing the legislation was published on Grid’s website). In his comments to the committee he said that the point of the steep slope rule was to prevent erosion and protect water quality during construction, which is relevant no matter the reason for clearing the trees.
He also pointed out that the legislation would permit a fence as high as 150 feet to be built without any setback from properties neighboring the course.
If the legislation passes, the foundation will avoid having a dialogue with neighbors at community association meetings. “City Council should not permit this kind of legislative end run around the community,” he said.
On Thursday, December 8, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission voted unanimously to request 45 additional days to consider the legislation — giving staff more time to gather information — and to allow the foundation to conduct more community outreach and release environmental assessment documents.
The decision came after over two hours of testimony and public comment, much of it critical of the golf course renovation. Commissioners noted that the legislation would set a precedent of avoiding the standard zoning appeal process, which requires outreach to local community organizations and allows public involvement. Several commenters made the same point.
“This isn’t about the golf course. It’s about the exemption that would set a precedent for other developments,” said Coryn Wolk, a member of the public commenting on the legislation. “If they really care about community engagement they shouldn’t need these exemptions.”