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East Marlborough Supervisors hear pros and cons of saving a Unionville home

03/08/2016 12:39PM ● Published by J. Chambless

This vacant home at 101 Poplar Tree Road in Unionville sits on a two-acre lot, and the owner is seeking guidance about what to do with the dilapidated structure.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

There were plenty of new issues to consider at the March 7 meeting of the East Marlborough Board of Supervisors, but during public comment at the opening of the meeting, the big issue was the perennial problem of the Whitewing Farm bed and breakfast.

For the past three years, neighbors of the business have fought owners Lance and Sandy Shortt, who are seeking permission to hold large outdoor events at the site, such as weddings. Neighbors have complained about noise and traffic on the narrow road to the farm, as well as what they say is a violation of the zoning ordinance. The Shortts have said they cannot afford to run Whitewing as only a bed-and-breakfast inn, and must cater larger events to survive financially.

On March 7, resident Rob McPherson spoke to the supervisors about a recent mediation meeting with the Shortts. “The meeting was kind of a waste of time,” McPherson said, adding that the attorney for the Shortts, Ronald Agulnick, “was insulting and threatening as usual, but I found the judge [Commonwealth Court Judge Rochelle Friedman] was a little less than impartial. She seemed to be coming across as more for the Shortts than for the township.”

Others who had been at the meeting agreed, saying that Judge Friedman had been disrespectful to the neighbors at the meeting.

McPherson asked if the Shortts prevailed in their case in Commonwealth Court, would the township have no further say in the matter.

Township solicitor Frone Crawford told the residents that, “The township would have no control under the zoning ordinance, but would have control under the nuisance ordinance.”

McPherson asked if the township still had a strong legal standing in the dispute, and Crawford said, “That hasn't changed. But I will say that my experience with Commonwealth Court is that they're not as predictable as you might like. They have panels of three that hear most cases, and it depends on which three representatives happen to be on a particular panel. My opinion as solicitor hasn't changed. We have the right position and we will prevail.

“I've been doing this for quite a while,” Crawford added, “and rarely have I seen such unanimity and intensity of residents when it comes to a zoning issue.”

The board granted permission for road closures associated with two upcoming races in the township – the Tough Mudder event on May 21 and 22; and a benefit race to be held at the New Bolton Center on May 7 from 9 a.m. to noon. The board also approved the final plan submitted for the second phase of the Walnut Walk townhouse development, which is under construction on Walnut Road.

A large portion of the meeting was spent hearing opposing opinions of what to do with a vacant home at 101 Poplar Tree Road in Unionville. The home, which sits on two acres at the corner of Wollaston and Poplar Tree roads at the southern edge of the village historic district, is owned by Bob Norris, who came to the supervisors for clarification on what he can do with the property.

For the past year and a half, Norris has been consulting with the Historic and Architectural
Review Board (HARB), which is demanding that he restore the home; and the Historic Commission, which has approved a plan to demolish the home and put a new home in its place, possibly with a second home built next to it.

“The home is in very tough shape,” Norris said.

John Rosencrans, chair of the Historic Commission, said, “If you wanted to save the house, the condition, size and design make it economically not feasible. It's a money pit,” he said, pointing out the home was built in four phases, with improperly constructed additions and support beams that are decayed and patched. “It's a stucco-clad, wood-frame building, and so there's probably rot there. Even if you put on a completely new outside and all new systems, basically you'd only be saving stud walls.”

Norris said he paid $110,000 for the property, “and I have about $135,000 into it so far. I knew the risk when I bought it, absolutely,” he said.

Patricia Montague of the HARB told the board, “Since the HARB formed in 1976, we have lost only one historic home in Unionville, and that was due to a flood. For us to tear down a home simply because someone wants to make money is wrong. Does the house need work?” she said. “Yes, of course. Nearly every home in Unionville needs work of some kind.”

Montague said the HARB does not mind Norris putting a second home on the property to help him pay for renovation of the existing home. They do not support demolishing the existing home and putting a new home in its place. At one point, Norris had explored the possibility of putting three new homes on the property, but has since backed off that plan.

In the end, the supervisors said they would like to see the condition of the home for themselves, and they scheduled a walk-through on March 14. Norris said he was happy for them to see the conditions. “So, in April, I hope you can come to a decision to support a variance, or consider demolition, against the advice of the HARB,” Norris said. “I'm just looking for a direction here. I understand the positions of both the HARB and the Historic Commission.”

The board also heard from township engineer Jim Hatfield about the second phase of the Unionville Park. The next phase will include a playground for toddlers, a covered pavilion with restrooms, the completion of the walking path through the park, an additional wetland crossing, a brick sidewalk and crosswalks on Route 82 at the north edge of the park, additional parking spaces and an entry plaza, some fencing and landscaping.

The total cost of the whole park will be just over $1 million, of which the township will have spent $368,972, Hatfield said, because of grant money being used to reimburse the township. The board unanimously approved the second phase and awarded the contract to Lechmanik, Inc., of West Chester, which submitted the low bid of $626,673 for the work. Hatfield expressed complete confidence in the company, and said the township had estimated the second phase would cost $714,000, “so this is a substantial savings,” he said.

Work should start in just over two months, he said, and the park should be completed by the fall of 2016.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.


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