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Chester County Press

Franklin Township will revise zoning, clearing the way for mushroom facility

03/11/2016 12:55PM ● By J. Chambless

The entrance of the Gourmet's Delight mushroom facility on Garden Station Road, with homes across the street.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

The 13-year legal battle over whether the Gourmet's Delight mushroom company could expand its operation on the border of London Grove and Franklin townships took a decisive turn last week, when the State Attorney General's office ordered the township to revise its zoning laws, clearing the way for the company to build.

Township Board of Supervisors chairman John Auerbach said on March 11 that, “In general terms, Gourmet's Delight will be able to construct their proposed mushroom production facility. They were able to obtain a favorable ruling from the Pennsylvania Attorney General, based on our compliance to the ACRE law. The law was specifically drafted with the purpose of preventing local governments from unreasonably restricting farming operations.”

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.

Gourmet's Delight appealed to the Franklin Zoning Hearing 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 2015 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.

But that didn't appease neighbors, who rallied to block what they say will be a noisy, smelly operation.

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. "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."

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."

Auerbach said last week that the current township zoning ordinance specifically excludes mushroom activities, listing “Uses Permitted by Right” as including “Agriculture and buildings related to agriculture (exclusive of mushroom and substrate activities).”

After the ACRE challenge, “we must remove this parenthetical phrase,” Auerbach said. “We really have no wiggle room. If we fail to comply, the Pennsylvania Attorney General will sue us in the Court of Common Pleas.”

Auerbach pointed out that, “By definition by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, mushroom production is a farming operation. It cannot be specifically differentiated from other farming operations. … the township cannot impose rules that are more restrictive than state law or rules.”

Patrick Talwin, a neighbor of the proposed expansion, led a group of homeowners opposing the plan. In an editorial sent to local media in 2015, 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."

Talwin outlined the company's 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.”

Auerbach said the revised ordinance is posted on the township's website, and the Board of Supervisors must vote to approve the ordinance for advertising at their March 16 meeting. The ordinance will be enacted into law at the April 20 Board of Supervisors meeting. All documents related to the Gourmet's Delight issue are posted at the township website, www.franklintownship.us.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail jchambless@chestercounty.com.

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