Confusion over a zoning variance denied to the owners of an East Mermaid Lane business turned into a public dispute during December’s meeting of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Development Review Committee.
For the past seven years, Herbiary, which sells specialty herbs and extracts, has run a retail operation at 7721 Germantown Ave. Last summer, owners Mai Toll and Andrew Celwyn expanded the business to include classes at a separate site at 133. E. Mermaid Lane.
The couple requested a variance from the city’s zoning board to continue offering workshops and consultations at Mermaid’s Herb School.
It’s unclear, however, if Toll and Celwyn made the correct request. According to members of the DRC, the request appears to only address an apartment that sits above the business and not the business itself.
The property contains a residential duplex, or twin and another building with three apartments on the upper floor and a seven-bay garage on the ground floor.
The apartment building once housed an office on the ground level. A variance used in 1956 allowed for the office space and the garages to be used as a commercial business.
For decades, the office and garages were used by a contracting business. Neighbors said that use was never a problem because the office attracted few clients to the property and the contractors only accessed the garages in the early morning and late afternoon on week days.
In recent years, the office was converted into a fourth apartment. Five of the garage bays were transformed into the Mermaid Lane Studios by artist Todd Kimmell.
A trio of near neighbors nonetheless voiced strong opposition to the prospect of classes continuing. They say the large groups of strangers that the business attracts create too much noise and infringe on their privacy.
Kristoffer Jacobson, whose backyard faces the garages that the Herb School occupies, said he is being “enormously inconvenienced” by the situation. He told DRC members that Herbiary’s students often talk on their cell phones and congregate outside where a lounge area has been set up.
He also noted that garage doors are open during class times when it’s warm out, adding to the noise and lack of privacy.
Jacobson and other neighbors have vowed not to speak directly with either Toll or Celwyn until the couple suspends classes.
“We don’t want to work out an arrangement for something illegal,” said Stephen McGargee, who lives directly next door to the school on East Mermaid.
The neighbors also say that the owner of the property, Ellen Deacon, should have first asked for community input on what type of business would be appropriate for the space before renting it to Herbiary.
Deacon, who did not attend the DRC meeting, told NewsWorks that, to her knowledge, all other near neighbors are either neutral or supportive of classes being held at the site. Deacon said she has talked with other home owners in the neighborhood and her tenants at both 133 and 127 E. Mermaid Lane.
One of those tenants, Anna Wik and another near neighbor, John Houston, spoke in support of Herbiary. Wik is an Herbiary employee.
Discussion to continue
Toll said classes are only held five to six times per month and have a maximum attendance of 20 students.
The pair also said they have addressed concerns which were brought to their attention, such as parking, but have not ceased classes. “We haven’t been willing to stop our business,” Celwyn stated.
That said, DRC co-chair John Landis told Celwyn and Toll that they will likely be unable to prevail in the matter. Their variance request would face a hardship test which requires evidence of benefit for immediate neighbors, some of whom clearly object.
Land Use Planning and Zoning (LUPZ) co-chair Cynthia Brey said another issue is that the garage space is not designed for classroom use.
“You need a Plan B,” Landis advised.
The matter was deferred to CHCA’s next Land Use, Planning and Zoning meeting with a strong recommendation that Herbiary’s attorney and Deacon be present. DRC members requested that all parties begin a face-to-face dialogue rather than communicate through email.
The couple was asked to confirm with the city that they have the correct variance refusal pertaining to their business.