July: Comings & Goings

Councilman Squilla Delays Controversial Zoning Bill
Councilman Mark Squilla, 1st District, announced June 12 that he would delay consideration of a bill he introduced regarding the Central Delaware Zoning Overlay. Urbanist PAC 5th Square’s petition to withdraw the bill garnered over 500 signatures after it was announced that the bill would increase the maximum allowed building height along the Delaware River Waterfront. It could also create a new height bonus for making “through connections” to the waterfront via quasi-public driveways and other passages run through private developments.

Fossil Fuel Industry Continues to Influence State Assembly
Legislation that would reduce protections to streams under which coal companies seek to mine passed in the state Senate 32-17 on June 6.

Senate Bill 624, introduced by Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, would directly affect a pending case before the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board relating to Consol Energy’s longwall mining activity in and near Greene County’s Ryerson Station State Park.

Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware/Montgomery, said Scarnati introduced S.B. 624 on April 13, two weeks after receiving a $5,000 contribution from Consol.

The Ryerson State Park case was brought three years ago by the Center for Coalfield Justice and Pennsylvania Sierra Club. A hearing was held in August 2016, and a decision from the state Environmental Hearing Board is expected soon.

“Confidence in government erodes when special-interest groups contribute to elected officials who in turn advance legislation favorable to those contributors,” Vitali said.

The bill is now with the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, and Vitali said he urges Gov. Tom Wolf to veto S.B. 624 should it reach his desk.

In addition, Vitali’s office announced that the natural gas industry spent $1.4 million lobbying the Pennsylvania General Assembly during the first quarter of this year.

Chesapeake Energy led in lobbying expenditures with $211,602. The latest figures, based on quarterly lobbying reports from 43 gas companies in Pennsylvania, bring the total in natural-gas lobbying spent since 2007 to more than $64 million.  

Pennsylvania is one of 10 states that does not limit gifts from lobbyists, and it is the only major gas-producing state in the country without a severance tax on extracting nonrenewable resources from a jurisdiction. According to the state Department of Revenue, Pennsylvania will lose $153.4 million in fiscal year 2016-17 by not having a severance tax.

State Supreme Court Strikes Blow to Fracking
On June 20, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s decision and ruled that in allowing the leasing of public land to private natural gas companies for hydraulic fracturing—and not directing profits to conservation efforts—it did not comply with its constitutional duty to Pennsylvanians. According to watchdog group PennFuture, subsequent leasing options would need to be accompanied by “an assessment of the public interest.”

George Jugovic Jr., PennFuture's president of legal affairs, said, “The ruling is monumental for not only public lands, but for the citizens of Pennsylvania. The court has made clear the constitution’s promise to protect the environment will be upheld.”

NextFab Opens Delaware Outfit
Philly-based makerspace NextFab launched its third facility on June 14, a 10,000-square-foot space located in downtown Wilmington, Delaware. Gov. John Carney and Mayor Mike Purzycki spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“Delaware’s economy will be increasingly driven by entrepreneurship and innovation,” said Gov. Carney. “We should invest in innovation, help connect small businesses and entrepreneurs with available resources, and make sure Delawareans have the technical skills necessary to succeed in our new economy.”

NextFab members are able to access equipment, software, training and consultants for personal and professional projects in fields such as engineering, arts, business and science.

The Wilmington location features co-working space, a classroom, wood shop, electronics lab, and digital fabrication tools such as laser cutters, 3-D printers and computer-controlled routing.

Philly a Winner In Knight Cities Challenge
Philadelphia received $338,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Cities Challenge, a grant awarded to 33 cities to improve services to residents.

The award to the city will fund a project titled the PHL Participatory Design Lab, spearheaded by the Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation and the Mayor’s Office of Policy, Legislation and Intergovernmental Affairs. The idea for the lab project was selected from a pool of 4,500 applications and is the largest Knight Cities Challenge award given this year.

The grant will allow the city to hire fellows from the complementary fields of service design and behavioral economics, who will work with residents and city staff.

“Residents need to be part of creating the type of cities where they want to live,” said Patrick Morgan, Knight Foundation program director for Philadelphia. “In this spirit, the PHL Participatory Design Lab will tap into the preferences of the people, advancing greater civic engagement and creating lessons in city-building.”

Public Transportation Advocate Killed by Car
Longtime public transportation advocate Peter Javsicas was killed on June 13 when a car rammed into a sidewalk newsstand outside of Suburban Station. 

He was 76. 

Mayor Kenney, in a statement, said, “Peter devoted his life to improving all forms of transportation for Philadelphia and the region, and so his death from this crash is all the more wrenching to those that know him. My administration, through its Vision Zero initiative, remains committed to preventing all traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries by 2030.”

Soda Tax Upheld
Philadelphia’s sweetened beverage tax was upheld last month by a state appeals court. According to Billy Penn, the American Beverage Association, which brought the lawsuit, plans to appeal all the way to Pennsylvania Supreme Court.