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What is a zoning map "overlay"?

The Philadelphia City Council's committee on rules recently voted to allow the installation of 3-D signs on certain corners in the Center City district. 3-D signs are not allowed by the zoning regulations applicable to the Center City district, so the committee used another zoning tool to accomplish this result: approval of a zoning map overlay.

A zoning map overlay is a land use tool that can be used to change or modify the provisions of the zoning code that are applicable to a defined area in the city, without actually rezoning any of the land. A zoning map overlay is, in essence, a second zoning map superimposed on the existing map for the land in question. If adopted by the City Council, then the 3-D sign overlay would become the second overlay map for the Center City District. Overlays are commonly used to preserve the nature of historically or architecturally unique communities or to ensure the protection of ecological resource.

A review of the purposes of some of the overlay districts demonstrates the different ways that this tool can be used. The Center City overlay was established "in order to preserve the existing character and encourage the revitalization of the Center City area." The overlay comprises detailed regulations for the use and preservation of buildings within the boundary of the overlay area. The Neighborhood Commercial Area Overlay districts are "intended to preserve the integrity of neighborhood commercial areas. . . ." The Delaware River Conservation Overlay District was created to "enhance the quality of life in Philadelphia" by protecting a system of parks and trails along the North Delaware River called the "Delaware River Greenway."

Overlay districts must be approved by the City Council, acting as the zoning board, in the same manner as any other amendment or modification of the zoning map or zoning code. Anyone thinking about establishing an overlay district should consult a lawyer who is experienced in the complexities of Philadelphia's land use laws.

Source: The Philadelphia Code, Chapter 14-500. Overlay Zoning Districts, accessed on Feb. 28, 2015

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