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Understanding special exceptions in Philadelphia zoning code

The Philadelphia Zoning Code contains many specialized terms - variance, special exception and rezoning, to name just three - that can seem confusing or opaque. An understanding of these terms is necessary to evaluate the types of permits that may be required for any residential or commercial real estate development. This post will address the concept of special exceptions.

In general, a special exception is a type of use that is allowed only after the project's owner has demonstrated that the project is a special exception use and does not have any detrimental impact on the surrounding neighborhood. Special exceptions may vary from one zoning district to another; a use permitted by special exception in a high-density residential zoning district may be entirely prohibited in a lower density residential district.

Applications for special exceptions are heard by the Zoning Board. An applicant for a special exception must prove by objective evidence that a grant of a special exception will not cause traffic congestion, overcrowding of the land, interference in the supply of light and air to adjacent tracts, over-burdening of municipal services including schools and parks, impairing the use of adjacent conforming properties and endangerment of public safety. The applicant must also demonstrate that the special exception, if granted, will be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan. Registered Community Organizations and other interested parties have the right to participate and present evidence at the hearing.

Anyone contemplating seeking a special exception may wish to consult with an attorney who is experienced in land use and zoning law. Such a consultation can provide a useful evaluation of the facts and law of the case and legal strategies for maximizing the chances for a favorable outcome.

Source: Philadelphia Code, Sec. 14-303(7), accessed on Dec. 17, 2016

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