By Richard L. Gaw
The current state of Joel Samick's motorcycle touring business in Kennett Township may have received a long deliberation at the township building on Nov. 19, but decisions that will determine the future of RetroTours will have to wait a few more weeks.
After a nearly three-hour hearing before a divided meeting room, in which the pros and the cons were heard for and against the notion of Samick continuing to run his business out of his home on Foxfell Drive, the township's Zoning Hearing Board told Samick and the audience that it will hold a final decision hearing on Dec. 10 at the township building.
At stake here is the board's determination to decide whether or not RetroTours should be permitted to receive a “special exception” from the board in order to continue to allow Samick to operate his home-based business. The board will weigh the validity of certain legal caveats in township codes in making their decision, including the township's zoning ordinance 501.B, which permits business activities in the R-2 residential district, so long as they comply with township requirements; Section 1901B, which speaks to what ancillary or accessory activities are permitted in the township; and Section 1918 of the township code, which serves as a litmus test that measures whether or not a business is considered “no impact” or “impact.”
The backdrop of this story may have reached its way into the public discussion earlier in the year, but it actually began 13 years ago, when Samick first began RetroTours when he and his wife Lynn were still living in West Chester. Since moving to the township 7 years ago, Samick has owned, maintained and operated 25 vintage, two-cylinder motorcycles dating back to the 1970s. Each year, Samick schedules about ten tours – averaging about 6 riders per tour – that go to places like West Virginia, the Susquehanna River, Central Pennsylvania and Hot Springs, Va.
Some of Samick's neighbors have voiced their objection to his business under the grounds that the rumble of motorcycle engines disrupts the quiet, sometimes idyllic setting that first drew them to the township. Besides that, they say, RetroTours violates the township's strict zoning codes, the provisions of which do not permit such a business in a R-2 zone. Their ire reached a fever pitch on June 1, when Samick hosted a Local Loop, which gives riders the opportunity to tool around Chester County and beyond in 5-, 15-, 30- and 60-mile loops. The riders along on the June 1 tour suggested to Samick that they just do a series of 5-mile loops, so that they could be able to ride many more bikes. Samick agreed with the riders, and suddenly, the sound of motorcycle engines filled the air.
Representing himself, Samick said in his opening remarks in applying for the exception to run his business that although the traffic generated by RetroTours on June 1 was excessive, inappropriate and unacceptable in a residential community and won't be repeated, Samick said that by law, township residents have a right to run a business out of their home so long as it complies with applicable statutes and regulations.
The impact on his neighbors from his business, Samick said, is practically negligible. “Until June 1, most of the residents were unaware that RetroTours was even operating,” he said. “The reason was that there was no pattern of excessive noise and traffic patterns.”
Samick said that he has no plans for expansion, no plans to hire anyone, and no plans to conduct any more than ten tours a year with a maximum of ten riders per tour. The demographics of his clientele, he said, are men and women from 45 to 60 years of age, who have middle- to upper-middle incomes.
“I don't dismiss any of my neighbors' concerns as petty or unfounded," Samick continued. "A lot of my neighbors have lived here for 30 years or longer. We've lived here for only 7 years. In the course of responding to their concerns, one thing has become clear to me. It is not the impact of RetroTours or the concerns they have that are the key issues. Even if every concern were addressed, my belief is that some of my neighbors will still insist that you not grant me this exception.”
The Zoning Hearing Board, made up of Neil Land, Robert Perrone and Chris Marson, asked Samick to further define his business, and then heard from those in the area who are opposing RetroTours.
"You've got 25 motorcycles and you keep them all running," Tom Otto asked Samick. "Do you not drive up and down the lane to test them? I've seen you sputtering out in front of our house and getting off the bike and fixing it and riding up the road."
"I'm test-riding on an on-going basis," Samick answered. "If I have an issue with a bike or need to fine tune-it, I'll ride down the development, turn around and ride back."
"Did it occur to you that when you were setting up your business that it wasn't a permitted use in this township, and did you realize that what you were doing was giving the appearance of operating under the table?" another resident asked Samick. "How you answer those questions may have a bearing on how people may feel who have moved out here 30 years ago, not realizing that they were going to wind up in the middle of a motorcycle repair business."
"The answer is no, I didn't think I was coming here to start up a business, because I had been doing it for 8 years," Samick answered. "I didn't plan to ambush you. I hear what you're saying, and what you're saying is, 'We weren't expecting you to blindside us.' And I did, and I know that I did, and I apologize for that. To me, this is a hobby. To the township, this is a business. I'm not trying to create a huge, profitable enterprise. I'm just trying to occupy myself in my retirement, doing what I like to do without it costing me a lot of money."
Samick then called witnesses to testify on his behalf, which included not only neighbors but riders who have participated on RetroTour rides. Ian Paul of Kennett Square, a rider on previous RetroTour rides, said he accompanied Samick on a tour to Bloomsberg, Pa. in July. Asked by Samick to recall the event, Paul said, "it was made very clear as we sat in your kitchen that we put on all of our gear, our luggage into your side car and that were to leave single file out of the lane, and to start the bikes and leave immediately after we took off."
Paul Gamble, the next-door neighbor of Samick's, said that the noise from Samick's motorcycles has never affected him.
"The noise has never been a problem for me," Gamble said. "I notice the motorcycle noise a whole lot less than I do neighbor noise and chain saws."
Tom Corcoran of Fieldstone Drive spoke on behalf of Samick's character. "I'm asking the residents of Stargut Lane to give Joel another chance," he said. "He's been operating this business for seven years with no complaints. If we ever hear his bikes over the chain saws, the lawn mowers, and the leaf blowers, I will sign a petition next time to tell him to stop RetroTours."
Ann Otto, a resident of Stargut Lane, then spoke before the board. "This is not about character," she said. "This is about the fact that we live in a deed restricted, private neighborhood, and we feel that granting a variance to allow a commercial enterprise to operate within the neighborhood would fundamentally change the character of that neighborhood.
"We feel a little bit betrayed, a little bit worried, and a little bit scared," she added. "This is a business that is advertised on the World Wide Web, with access to a private neighborhood, (allowing) people to come in and have a recreational experience that begins and ends at the end of our neighborhood. The fact that this is a high-risk activity exposes us to increased liability."
After a brief recess, the board reconvened to set its decision hearing date on the issue.