By John Chambless
After ten hearings stretching over more than a year, the fate of The Inn at Whitewing Farm came down to a two-minute announcement on Oct. 15.
The East Marlborough Township Zoning Hearing Board and attorney John Jaros faced Whitewing owners Lance and Sandy Shortt and 16 members of the public at the East Marlborough Township Building. Tom Simpers, the chairman of the zoning board, read from a prepared statement: "Application is denied. Motion carried. Meeting adjourned."
At the crux of the prolonged legal case is The Inn at Whitewing Farm, which the Shortts purchased on Jan. 29, 2012 from Edward and Wanda DeSeta. It contains a home where the Shortts are living, a home where Lance Shortt's mother is living, a converted barn that holds bed-and-breakfast rooms, cottages used by overnight guests, as well as an area where tents can be put up to host large events.
Lance Shortt hired West Chester attorney Ronald Agulnick to argue that the township's zoning ordinance is invalid because it prohibits operating what Agulnick is calling "a place of private assembly." Specifically, Shortt wants to host weddings, meetings and private parties at the Whitewing Farm property.
Dozens of neighbors aligned against him because of what they say is excessive noise and traffic resulting from events that are held in tents on the 11-acre property, which is in a residential area near Longwood Gardens. Relations with the neighbors turned ugly, and their testimony stressed how the music from events in tents was clearly heard inside their homes.
The application filed by Shortt and his wife, Sandra, in June 2012 reads that they want to run "a place to accommodate meetings, events and other private group assemblies, including without limitation, private parties, business conferences, weddings, seminars and similar activities on the subject property."
The application contends that, since the township zoning ordinance doesn't specifically allow such a use in any district in the township, the Shortts are being unfairly excluded. The application challenges the validity of the ordinance. Shortt - who says he borrowed heavily to buy the Whitewing property - has testified that he cannot make a living by running the farm strictly as a B&B for a few people a night.
Much of the testimony at the hearings over the past year has been focused on interpretations of the wording of the township's zoning ordinance. Much of the testimony has centered on whether the word "herein" applies to the township as a whole, or the ordinance itself, and there has been considerable testimony on the issue of accessory or primary uses for hotel facilities.
The Shortts displayed no emotion when the verdict was announced on Oct. 15. Lance Shortt leaned over to Agulnick for a brief conversation. After the hearing was ended, Agulnick said, "We knew this was what the board was going to do. If we're going to win this, we'll win it on appeal."
The Shortts are continuing to operate Whitewing as a bed-and-breakfast, and their Facebook page displays new, favorable reviews from their guests. Lance Shortt said he will keep fighting.
"We're in the right," he said. "We're the number two bed-and-breakfast in all of Pennsylvania right now. There's a reason for that."
He had no comment about whether he will be hosting large events at Whitewing while the legal case enters a new phase. No timetable has been announced for the appeal process.