Herbiary earns LUPZ support for Mermaid Lane classes

It was a feisty first meeting of the New Year for the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Land Use Zoning and Planning committee.

Thursday night’s single agenda item concerned a zoning variance request made by the owners of Herbiary, which sells herbs and extracts in its stores at 7721 Germantown Ave. in Chestnut Hill and in the Reading Terminal Market in Center City.

The business also runs classes and offers consultations at a space inside 133 E. Mermaid Lane that owners Maia Toll and Andrew Celwyn have named Mermaid’s Heart Herb School. The variance involves continuing those services at the location, a move that has angered at least three near neighbors.

The couple’s initial request with the city’s zoning board was denied, prompting them to seek support from the CHCA.

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A complex zoning matter

Toll and Celwyn first came to CHCA’s Development Review Committee in December to gain that support. At that meeting, however, there was confusion concerning whether the denied zoning variance had been correct.

The variance refusal only addresses a ground floor efficiency apartment on the property, which has no connection to the business. This dwelling unit is in violation of the city’s zoning code.

Attorney Joseph Beller, who represents Toll and Celwyn, told LUPZ members that he asked the zoning examiner to verify that the application was indeed the one which led to the variance refusal. Herbiary’s use has so far not been deemed by the city to necessitate any variance.

The property contains a total of six residential units. A duplex is situated at the front along Mermaid Lane. To the rear, a mixed-use building contains three upper floor apartments. On the ground floor is an additional apartment and a seven-bay garage. The ground floor apartment was originally an office space.

A variance granted in 1956 allowed commercial business use for that office space and the garages.

Some time ago, the office was converted into a fourth apartment. Five of the garage bays were transformed into a single studio space in 2010.

Herbiary’s classes take place in that former studio space.

Classes meet only four times a month, according to Toll. Current enrollment includes a class with 10 students which meets twice monthly on weekends, a 20-student class which meets one weekend a month, and one weekday class with 18 students.

The classes are part of an herbal training course which runs from September through June with a $1700 tuition. “It’s a high level of investment,” she stated.

Toll said one additional day per month is left open for guest lecturers or special occasions.

Willing to compromise

LUPZ heard from the property’s owner, Ellen Deacon, who said she believed she was “operating properly and in good faith” when she leased space to Herbiary.

Deacon, who has owned the property since December 2001, told the committee that the space is not typical of a regular garage and has always been heated with a bathroom and additional sink.

Prior tenants include a stone mason, landscaper, house painter. Deacon added, however, that she had long “envisioned a more people-focused use of the property.”

Part of that plan involves a nearly one acre adjacent lot which Herbiary is transforming into a community garden. A portion of the garden is designated for growing herbs, which Herbiary utilizes as an additional teaching tool.

The mostly wooded lot, owned by Deacon, sits behind the garage space and connects her properties at 127 and 133 E. Mermaid Lane and 7730 Ardleigh St. Deacon said she bought the property with a dream of creating a neighborhood garden which would protect the green space from future development.

Deacon also noted that she is eager to work with her neighbors to resolve zoning issues and work towards mending the rift between herself and neighbors, some of which she said stems from an unrelated personal dispute.

Some neighbors who oppose the Herb School have refused to speak with Toll, Celwyn and DeaconThe refusal to communicate is “a source of pain,” said Deacon. “Legitimate concerns could be handled effectively with communication.”

Toll and Celwyn expressed that they are both open to comprises, such as limiting class sizes, hours and number of monthly sessions.

Opposition remains

Opposing neighbors in attendance, however, remained firm in their stance on the business.

Stephanie Kasten and Steve McGargee remained vehement in their objections against the classes. The couple, who own a home two doors down from the business, said they are most concerned about the lasting legacy of any variance which would permit classes on the site.

McGargee, acting as proxy, read from a prepared statement written by another near-neighbor, Kristoffer Jacobson, who was unable to attend the meeting.

Jacobson, who owns property right next door, was the most staunchly opposed to Herbiary’s classes at last month’s DRC meeting.

Jacobson’s letter noted that he is “opposed to this particular business” and remains firmly against any compromise. The statement acknowledged Toll’s “glowing” reputation as an expert in a growing field which he foresees leading to increased use and more classes.

Jacobson’s letter also stated that his only concession is that he now is willing to discuss ways Toll and Celwyn can “gracefully exit” their business from the site.

The opposing neighbors say the classes bring a number of strangers on the grounds and noise from those students is an inconvenience.

Herbiary’s classes threaten to turn residential zoning into public use and would leave the “cul-de-sac fundamentally and permanently altered,” asserted Jacobson in his statement.

LUPZ member, Larry McEwen disagreed and pointed out that the 1956 variance has allowed for continued commercial use. “It’s not a totally residential enclave,” he said.

Show of support

Herbiary’s Celwyn, told the committee that Herbiary has the support of 18 of the 21 near-neighbors and 52 out of 57 neighbors in general proximity to the site.

Two of those neighbors were present to voice their support, particularly concerning the adjoining green space which they see as a benefit to the entire community.

Tracey Sith-Diggs, who lives on the unit block of Mermaid Lane, said she hopes that her neighbors can come to a mutual agreement. Herbiary’s classes are a good use, she said, especially the garden which “can only enhance the neighborhood.”

In a split decision, LUPZ members voted to support the variance request as it pertains to the sixth apartment unit with a proviso that Herbiary’s classes be limited to five per month, only three of which are permissible to be held on weekends and ending at 5 p.m.

The matter will go before the DRC in February, rather than this month due to a prior commitment which prevents Toll and Celwyn from being present. In the meantime, LUPZ co-chair, Cynthia Brey, said she is willing to act as a mediator and requested neighbors to come together to work out their differences.

Beller will present Herbiary’s usage request before the Zoning Board of Adjustment on March 4.

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