Steep Slope Exemption Inches Toward Approval


On Thursday, January 19, the effort to pass legislation to waive restrictions for clearing trees on steep slopes for the Cobbs Creek golf course passed one hurdle at the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, though final passage will be delayed thanks to amendments introduced by the sponsor, Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr.

The bill would create a special “overlay district,” in which City zoning requirements would be altered, including restrictions against clearing trees on steep slopes.

At a December 8, 2022 meeting, the City Planning Commission voted to wait 45 days before deciding whether to grant its approval to the bill, based on several concerns, including that tree clearing on steep slopes of the golf course could worsen flooding in Southwest Philadelphia’s Eastwick neighborhood, which is positioned downstream.

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, is conducting the course renovation.

At Thursday’s meeting the commission members appeared to be satisfied by testimony from representatives of the foundation as well as a letter from Patrick Patterson, Southeast Regional Director for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, that said the clearing of trees on steep slopes would not negatively impact flooding downstream.

The bill was scheduled for a vote by City Council at a session on Thursday as well, but Jones said he has introduced amendments to the bill to limit the course’s exemptions to the steep slopes zoning rules and will wait for additional community outreach before a vote.

Nonetheless, the bill overall could, by waiving City environmental laws for a controversial development, set a dangerous precedent. “The overlay district might just apply to the Cobbs Creek golf course, but its effects extend beyond these boundaries,” said Lawrence Szmulowicz, a volunteer with the Cobbs Creek Ambassadors and Cobbs Creek Environmental Justice, in testimony at the hearing. “The ordinance, if passed, would create a dangerous precedent of using overlay districts to carve out exemptions to core environmental protections. Steep slope protection is environmental protection.”

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