A decision on the future of 102 Rochelle Ave. was delayed Wednesday as no officials from the Department of Licenses and Inspections attended a hearing with the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
Although that hearing was put off until August 8, attorneys on both sides of the property dispute shared their side of whether the Wissahickon property was legally a multi-family home.
The Wissahickon Interested Citizens Association appealed a rental license granted by L & I earlier this year for a multi-family property at 102 Rochelle Ave., arguing that because a six-year lapse in use occurred, they claim, the city can deny a license. Chip Roller, WICA vice president, the organization seeks to preserve single-family homes in the neighborhood.
Attorney Bill O'Brien represents David Branigan, who recently purchased the house. Edwin Lasota owned the Victorian home and following his death, his estate sold it to Branigan. O'Brien said that his client ensured the zoning allowed for a multi-family use before purchase.
Lasota's estate provided Branigan with city documentation affirming the use—O'Brien said he wanted to be certain the paperwork was in order. Additionally, the estate produced a rental license. Following his acquisition of property, O'Brien said Branigan continued to follow the letter of the law, and he successfully acquired a rental license in his own name.
"When he purchased it, everything was up to code. He could have rented it the next day if he wanted to," O'Brien said, adding the fire safety system was in perfect condition—just as a rental property should be.
The civic association challenges whether L & I could have rejected that application. Part of the argument dates back to 1948, when the property owners received a variance. Hal Schirmer, representing WICA, says the property's use has changed over time as has the zoning code—sometimes two-family, sometimes one. Since 2003, he said, only one family was permitted to live at the property. Schirmer said Lasota could have been grandfathered in for multi-family, but the lapse in renting should revoke that privilege.
"A person can rent a single-family home to renters—that's fine, but when you split the units up, it becomes a problem," he said.
O'Brien contends that WICA is being "mean-spirited" and disagrees with its assertion that the property fell out of its use.
"If it did, why didn't they challenge Eddie (Lasota)? This is a case of picking on the new guy," he said.
Going back to the original variance, O'Brien said multi-family use—just like many nearby Wissahickon properties—was permitted. The city granted a hardship for insufficient side yard space. In essence, he says, the zoning was always valid, and renting multiple units is permitted.
Additionally, he challenges WICA's hard-line stance against multi-family homes.
"You won't get college students in this property. He's going to fix it up, and they wouldn't be able to afford it. What really becomes a party house is a single-family home that can't sell," he said, adding bad landlords are hurting the situation, as well.
Either way, the ZBA will hear the case August 8 at 1515 Arch St.
Editor's note: Portions of the article regarding the homes status since 2003 have been clarified to reflect Schirmer's claim.