Kensington: Zoning Board Rejects Otolith Sustainable Seafood Variance Application

When married couple Amanda Bossard and Murat Aritan dreamed of bringing their unique sustainable seafood company, Otolith, to Philadelphia in 2007, they knew some bumps in the road would follow. Aritan spends six months of the year fishing in the bountiful but deadly waters off Alaska away from his family, while Bossard, who raises their two children, oversees the transportation of the delicate fish by barge from Alaska to Seattle, then by truck from Seattle to Philadelphia.

What they didn’t see coming was a roadblock from Philadelphia’s Zoning Board of Adjustment that in October 2010 rejected their application for a zoning variance application. That application had overwhelming support in their Kensington community from residents, leaders and City Councilman Frank DiCicco.

Bossard and Aritan needed that variance to fully operate Otolith’s from the once blighted building they had renovated into their residence.

“The variance application was for turning our residential property in Kensington into selling wholesale pre-packed frozen seafood in the front room with an accessory office, and a one family dwelling above,” Bossard said. “It was sad, difficult and painful for our dream to get rejected.”

Otolith owner Amanda Bossard discusses her variance application rejection by the ZBA.

But if that ZBA rejection wasn’t bad enough, the official silence after the decision added insult to injury.

“The ZBA gave no rational, no reasons why, and no explanation,” Otolith lawyer Coren Wise said.

That’s because by law, the ZBA never has to give an explanation anytime it rejects a variance application.

“In an ideal world, every zoning case would have an explanation,” Executive Director of the City Planning Commission Alan Greenberger said. “The truth is our current zoning code is not up to date and creates a backlog of cases.”

The decision, which Greenberger called a “judgment call,” left Bossard, Aritan and the whole community puzzled why the ZBA, a board of five members which needs a majority to pass a ruling, rejected a variance application for Philadelphia’s only sustainable seafood market.

“Sustainable seafood means encouraging responsible harvest methods which don’t jeopardize the ecosystem,” Bossard said. “We also reward harvesters to promote effective management for sustainable fisheries.”

Chairperson of the ZBA Lynette Brown-Sow, who was appointed by Mayor Nutter in January 2008, would not comment on why the board rejected the Otolith variance application but feels the decision making process is just.

“I don’t think the board needs to be specific because people have the right to appeal and have other avenues if they are not happy with the process,” Brown-Sow said. “Through our questioning process, businesses should know why they got rejected and what the issues were.”

Bossard and Aritan could have appealed the rejection but they already spent $3,000 bringing the case to the ZBA.

This is the building where Otolith Sustainable Seafood is located in Kensington.

“We are a small business and couldn’t afford to appeal the case, because we didn’t know the reasons why we were rejected in the first place,” Bossard said. “We had no real expectations of winning our variance appeal the second time around.”

The Otolith owners and members of the community feel it is only fair that the ZBA offer explanations for its decisions.

“I would like more openness and predictability regarding how decisions are made,” said Amy Miller, a member of the East Kensington Neighbors Association (EKNA). “By law, variances should only be granted under certain circumstances, although the ZBA often grants variances even when those circumstances are not met.”

The EKNA in its support letter to the ZBA for Otolith stated that “negative impact to adjacent property owners appears unlikely” and there was overwhelming support from the community.

“The community supported Otolith, so the councilman supported Otolith,” said Mary Anne Womelsdorf, the chief of staff for Councilman DiCicco. “The ZBA for whatever reason decided to go the other way.”

The reality of the situation was even if the community and a councilman supported a variance application, it does not mean that it will pass.

“Those things are just one piece of the pie,” ZBA Chair Brown-Sow said.

Because no definite explanation was given at that ZBA hearing, smelly speculation has arisen about why the Otolith application was rejected.

“Fish is a perishable food that can stink and even though it is not an issue now, it can become an issue with the neighbors in the future,” Planning Commission Executive Director Greenberger said.

“In this case, the particular nature of the business (fish) seemed to be the main cause for refusal considering its proximity to residential homes,” EKNA’s Miller said.

According to a document submitted by Otolith lawyer Wise for reconsideration after the variance application was denied, no thawing, packaging or un-packaging of seafood would occur at the location and no food waste would be at the property.

While the ZBA rational remains a mystery what is clearly known is the prior history of the property at 2133 Huntingdon St., before Bossard and Aritan bought it.

“It used to be a crack house,” said Luis Figueroa, a neighborhood block captain. “I’ve seen a couple people get taken out of there who overdosed.”

“I was very disappointed that their application was rejected,” Figueroa added. “They are not doing any harm and only adding good to the community.”

For now, Bossard uses their property as a place where she keeps some samples and does occasional office work.

Otolith currently sells fish to through a community supported seafood program, in which buying groups get together and buy 25 pounds of fish at wholesale price.

Here are some of the fish products that Otolith sells to its customers.

Bossard is not deterred by the rejection of the variance application and plans to reapply in hopes of getting another zoning hearing in coming months.

“It’s important for people to stand up for defending their freedom and to define the positive characteristics of their own neighborhood,” Bossard said. “Obviously, it’s time to stand up for it in Kensington.”

The City’s Zoning Code Commission is currently in the process of rewriting Philadelphia’s zoning code.

“Our current code is 50 years old and is the reason why so many cases go to the ZBA,” Greenberger of the Planning Commission said. “Hopefully, we can alleviate the case load the ZBA with the zoning code rewrite.”

The zoning code rewrite, which has taken over three years to complete and is more than 400 pages long, is supposed to be brought up to City Council shortly for passage and implementation.

“The new rules for the ZBA that are proposed in the draft zoning code do require some sort of written explanation for findings,” EKNA’s Miller said. “This seems like an excellent idea for reasons of fairness and predictability.”

Bossard hopes this part of the zoning code rewrite makes it into the final draft.

“Some accountability and transparency is needed for the ZBA and I wouldn’t want any small business to go through the heartache we are going through,” Bossard said.

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