Chestnut Hill’s Herbiary loses ground in variance support battle

The dispute over a use variance request made by a Chestnut Hill herb shop’s owners and neighbors of the site where they hold classes raged on at the February meeting of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Development Review committee. 

In the end, the DRC voted unanimously to withold support for the use variance. The committee cited the perplexity of the variance refusal and changes made to the property.

Herbiary, a specialty herbs and extracts retailer, has run its shop at 7721 Germantown Avenue for the past seven years. Last summer, owners Maia Toll and Andrew Celwyn expanded their business model to include classes at a separate site at 133 E. Mermaid Lane, a residential building. An initial variance request was denied by the city’s zoning board, causing the couple to seek CHCA support.

The classes have drawn the ire of two households living in front of the site.

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“We’re here in cooperation and hope we can do something that appeases all sides,” Celwyn said.

Last month, CHCA’s Land Use and Planning committee voted to support the variance request as it pertains to the converted apartment unit with a proviso that Herbiary’s classes be limited to five per month, only three of which were permitted to be held on weekends and had to finish up by 5 p.m.

L & I violation

One of the two opposing near neighbors, Kristoffer Jacobson, of 131 E. Mermaid Lane, filed a complaint last year with the city’s Licenses and Inspection department. On February 6, L&I held an inspection of the property and issued a violation regarding the use.

Action on the violation will be suspended until after Herbiary’s March 5 hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Celwyn told the DRC that an application for a new use permit had been submitted to L&I. Since the refusal, the couple polled and received overwhelming support from most neighbors as part of DRC’s zoning application process, Celwyn noted.

Muddled situation

The confusion for the DRC lies with the issue that the variance refusal only addresses a ground floor efficiency apartment on the property, which has no connection to Herbiary’s business.

The property, owned by Ellen Deacon since 2002, contains a total of six residential units. Two units are within a duplex situate at the lot’s front along Mermaid Lane. To the rear of the property, a mixed-use building contains three upper floor apartments plus an additional apartment and seven-bay garage on the ground level.

The ground floor apartment was originally a business office. A variance granted in 1956 allowed commercial business use for that office space and the adjoining garages. From 1924 until 2000, Peter Marcolina operated a stone masonry contracting business from the site.

The heated garage spaces continued to be used by various contractors until 2010, when five of the garage bays were combined into a single workshop. Herbiary holds its classes in that space.

After Deacon purchased the property, the office was converted into a sixth apartment. It is this dwelling unit which has been deemed in violation of the city’s zoning code.

The opposing neighbors questions whether Deacon should have allowed a business office on the property, per the 1956 variance, after she eliminated the original office space years ago.

“Despite the fact LUPZ recommended approval, I feel that these two issues are too muddled,” stated Joyce Lenhardt, vice president of the CHCA’s Physical Division.

Neighbors square off

Jacobson and his partner, Robert Caserio, together with Stephanie Kasten and Steve McGargee, of 129 E. Mermaid Lane, told the DRC that they strongly object to the variance because it will lead to the deterioration of the residential characteristics of 133 E. Mermaid as well as their own properties.

“We’re the only two families effected,” stated Jacobson, even though four other homes, on the 7700 block of Ardleigh Street, have backyards which face the parking lot.

Jacobson argued that the business use creates a front yard for the mix-use building by way of the parking lot, which he says has become a public thoroughfare. He and the other opposing neighbors complained about students who congregate in the lot after classes and hold prayer circles.

Jacobson says that Herbiary’s classes have caused their backyards to become de facto front yards, which the neighbors fear will decrease the value of their property. Those neighbors assert that the business use affects their privacy, while admitting both households have fences which separate their backyards from the parking lot. Kasten and Mcgargee’s fence is approximately five feet in height, while Jacobson’s is a foot lower. “I deliberately kept it at four feet so I can interact with people,” he remarked.

Marcolina’s stone masonry business never posed a problem because neighbors eventually got to know the contractors who frequented the property, Jacobson said.

The opposing neighbors are concerned about what they see as a dramatic increase in non-residents to the property.

“They seem to want a community that’s only about people who own land, not about people like my tenants. They seem to want a community that is about who you’ve known for a long time, not who you could get to know,” Deacon said.

Community Garden

Herbiary’s classes are part of an herbalist training course which runs from September through June with a gardening component.

The business is in the process of transforming a nearly one acre lot, also owned by Deacon, into a community garden to be used a teaching tool. The lot sits behind the mix-use building and connects Deacon’s properties at 127 and 133 E. Mermaid Lane and 7730 Ardleigh Street.

Opposing neighbors again complained about strangers having access to a lot so close to their own properties, citing the garden’s Facebook page which has 177 members.

Jacobson also brought to the DRC’s attention Herbiary’s application for a $250,000 small business grant, to be used for the garden. “I don’t believe we have any idea of the scope or nature of what this business can be, wants to be, will be,” he said.

Deacon says she reached out to neighbors to try and protect the green space from development. When her efforts went unanswered, she bought the lot on her own. She told the DRC that she sees the garden as an investment in a community of people who care about the earth and want to learn about it.

“I don’t see them as being these dangerous strangers,” she stated.

Next steps

While the DRC did not endorse Herbiary’s use variance, the committee did vote in support of the zoning variance for the property’s sixth dwelling unit.

Herbiary will present its variance request to the CHCA Board on February 28.

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