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Chester County Press

Neighbors square off against mushroom company in Franklin Township

05/12/2015 10:54AM ● By J. Chambless

This April 2015 photo shows the 'yucky goo' found in the Indian Run Stream.

This 2012 photo shows clean stream water (right) and the outflow from the Gourmet's Delight facility (left).

 About 50 neighbors of a proposed expansion of the Gourmet's Delight mushroom company on the border of London Grove Township and Franklin Township are fighting a proposed expansion that they say will affect their quality of life.
Gourmet’s Delight sits on the township line on Garden Station Road. In 2003, the company asked Franklin Township officials if they could build a mushroom house on the Benmark Farm property, which is in Franklin Township, contiguous with their existing operation in London Grove. The Zoning Officer at the time agreed, saying that mushroom growing was allowed, according to township zoning rules. 
Then the disagreements began.
In March 2005, Gourmet's Delight asked neighbors if they would agree to overturn the deed restriction on the Benmark Farm property that forbid mushroom houses. No neighbors agreed to eliminate the restriction. At the time, the company said they would use the property as a "buffer," with public walking trails and no buildings.
In September of that year, Richard Pia, the owner of Gourmet's Delight, bought the Benmark Farm. In December of 2008, the company asked the township if they could build a composting-only operation, with no mushroom growing. In February 2009, the township ruled that composting is not allowed in the district. By state law, Gourmet's Delight had 30 days from the zoning officer's decision to appeal to the zoning board. The company did not appeal.
In May 2014, Gourmet's Delight appealed the 2009 decision. In July 2014, the township restated their position, saying that composting is not allowed at the site. In August 2014, Gourmet's Delight submited a plan for a major composting operation in Franklin Township. Through their attorney, Joe Riper, they also filed an ACRE challenge with the state Attorney General, saying they were seeking a mushroom growing and composting facility on the site. The ACRE law is intended to protect farmers from having municipalities pass restrictive laws against them. 
Gourmet's Delight appealed to the Franklin Zoning Hearind Board in October of 2014, outlining their updated plan. In their appeal, they claimed that none of the township composting or mushroom growing restrictions were legal.  
At an April 28 public meeting with the Zoning Hearing Board, Gabe Valentino, the general manager of Gourmet's Delight, told residents that the company is proposing a  facility that will include three phases of mushroom production -- composting, growing and harvesting. Valentino said the composting would be done under a roof with minimal odor. He said that “growing rooms” would be part of the expansion, as opposed to traditional mushroom houses. 
John Auerbach, the chairman of the board of supervisors in Franklin Township, spoke to the Chester County Press last week, but declined to comment on the record because the Gourmet situation is a pending legal matter.
Paul Overton, a former Franklin Township supervisor, lives near the proposed plant expansion and has been closely following the case.
"I was a supervisor when Gourmet proposed their latest expansion into Franklin Township, the proposal currently under consideration," Overton wrote to the Chester County Press last week. "I remain  interested because I am a neighbor who lives directly downstream of the Gourmet mushroom outfall (Indian Run Stream) and I am tired of my children telling me the stream in our yard smells yucky, or has yucky goo floating in it.  
"I am 100 percent in support of the mushroom industry and have no sympathy for people who build McMansions next to a mushroom company and then complain about the smell," Overton continued. "However, I do not agree that mushroom companies have some special right to pollute -- more specifically, pollute the White Clay Creek.  I do not support a mushroom company moving into a long-established residential neighborhood and building a monstrosity that will lower everyone's quality of life and property value -- especially the convoluted, underhanded way the expansion is being proposed."
Overton pointed to the discrepancies in the plans submitted by Gourmet's Delight over the years. 
"Notice the plans submitted are different," he wrote. "This means the Planning Commission is reviewing one plan for composting only, and the Attorney General and Zoning Hearing Board are reviewing a different plan with mushroom growing and composting."
Overton said that at the April 2015 Zoning Hearing Board meeting,, Gourmet's Delight representatives testified that "they acknowledge a deed restriction against mushroom houses, but state their proposed mushroom growing operation is somehow different than a mushroom house and therefore allowed," he wrote. "No explanation given. When asked why the different plans have been submitted, they again give no explanation  What asked when the mushroom portion will be built, they won't reply. It is clear they don't know because they have no intention of building it. They want to win the right to build through the ACRE suit under the claim of mushroom 'farming,' but then only build the composting portion. This is underhanded, a bait-and-switch tactic."
In a March 2014 letter to the township, Gourmet's Delight laid out their plans for the proposed composing facility. In his letter to township manager Joan McVaugh that accompanied the company's outline of the project, Gabe Valentino wrote, "odors from the proposed composting process on Gourmet's Benmark property in Franklin Township will be significantly reduced in the indoor aerated composting process. ... It is our view that we have demonstrated our commitment to a low-impact, state-of-the-art composting facility that will be a major upgrade to the traditional composting processes that are associated with mushroom growing in Chester County."
In the outline provided to the township, the company wrote, "Gourmet currently produces the mushroom compost needed for the existing 34 mushroom growing rooms on the farm in London Grove Township. Approximately 50 percent of the existing mushroom compost production is on an outside, uncovered wharf with no aeration and 50 percent is done in an enclosed (three sides and roof) building with aeration through slots in the floor. ... Presently hay and straw are stored on the Benmark Farm in Franklin Township, and the remainder of the raw materials is stored on the existing farm in London Grove Township.
"In order to add the 12 mushroom growing rooms that have been approved by London Grove Township, Gourmet must remove and replace the outdoor mushroom compost area," the letter continues. "Gourmet is proposing to do this on the Benmark Farm (24 acre). The first phase of construction would include the construction of a state-of-the-art, enclosed, aerated mushroom compost facility on the Banmark Farm to replace the outdoor compost area on the existing farm, plus some capacity for the additional growing rooms. Once that facility is operational, the outdoor composting on the existing farm would be decommissioned and the additional 12 mushroom growing rooms would be constructed in the same footprint as the decommissioned outdoor compost operation. It is anticipated that this conversion would occur in the three- to five-year time frame."
The company admitted that the outdoor composting and "nutrient enriched water" runoff at the existing farm can "generate potential odor and water pollution," but maintaned that their proposed new facility would greatly reduce that potential pollution. "Oftentimes outdoor, non-aerated compost piles go anaerobic and generate offensive odors," the company wrote to the township. "The sheer volume of nutrient enriched water generated by runoff from the outdoor compost operation oftentimes creates conditions that generate odors in the storage, treatment and reuse or reclamation of the nutrient enriched water. ... The new enclosed compost facility would significantly reduce these sources."
Patrick Talwin, a neighbor of the proposed expansion, is leading a group of homeowners who are opposing the plan. In an editorial sent to local media last week, Talwin wrote,  "Gourmet's Delight is a $20 million to $50 million, vertically-integrated operation including composting facilities, mushroom houses, packing and repacking, storage and distribution facilities. This is a huge industrial operation hiding behind the ACRE law, which was meant to protect true farming operations. [The company is] challenging Franklin’s zoning ordinances, subdivision and land development ordinances, traffic impact fees and storm water management regulations."
Talwin outlined the proposed expansion as, "an industrial-size composting plant -- a two-story building covering five acres, accompanied by a lagoon and filtration pond of equal size, right within a residential neighborhood that has been in existence since the late 1960s.
"We have played the good neighbor card for years, not complaining (until recently) about the odors, truck traffic and noise from diesel generators," Talwin wrote. "Our reward was an attempt by Gourmet a few years ago to dupe residents into signing off on their deed restriction. Many neighbors did visit Gourmet’s facilities and spoke with the general manager about their plans, only to find that their plans keep changing, becoming larger and more ambitious as time goes on.
"Franklin Township and its residents did not ask for this fight, but we intend to support Franklin Township’s Board of Supervisors in their effort to defend us, our township ordinances and our way of life," Talwin concluded.
The next hearing regarding the proposed Gourmet's Delight expansion will be held on June 30. Details and a background of the issue are posted on the township's website, www.franklintownship.us.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail jchambless@chestercounty.com.

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