Lately, forces in Philly government have been struggling to clarify the role of residents in zoning battles. One thing they didn’t factor in: What if builders are willing to pay off neighbors to get out of the way?
Eugene Bukh, owner of PP Development, found himself in just that position recently. Owners of properties backing onto a lot at 17th and South streets weren’t happy that he planned to build a four-story structure with a 7-Eleven virtually attached to the backs of their homes — or that the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment approved the plan. Resident Doug Risen, for one, says the building would “cripple” his property’s value, not to mention his views.
So he asked Bukh to make it up to him and his neighbors — with a cool $225,000. In return, they’d drop an appeal against the project in court.
Risen sees this as merely negotiating to mitigate a harm. Bukh has a different point of view: “Did I feel like they were extorting me? 110 percent, yes.”
Still, Bukh was game. He told Risen: “I’ll make you a fair offer. Let’s get the properties appraised today, and when it’s built let’s get them reappraised. If the property value decreases, I’ll pay each of you the value it decreased. And if your property value increases, then you pay me.” Neighbors rejected that. Instead, they asked him to build six stories and give them a condo. When that didn’t work for him, they threw out the $225,000 figure. Bukh says he was willing to give them $150,000, for expediency’s sake. “I had everything ready to go; they pretty much threw a wrench in the deal.”
Whether appeasing neighbors with a few thousand dollars is common practice in Philly, neither Risen or Bukh could say (the negotiations came to light only after a blog, Philadelinquency, posted their email chain). But the issue arose recently around a proposed digital billboard on the Electric Factory building, where the owner offered to share revenues with nearby schools after five other tries at legalizing the sign failed.
Risen, who lost his first appeal and will now take the case to Commonwealth Court, says he’d rather not have the payout; he’d prefer that zoning rules be enforced. “People who buy next to vacant lots, other than the zoning code there’s nothing to tell them what’s going to be there,” he says. “We want the city to enforce the code it has in place.”