Kennett Township to pursue code enforcement on abandoned garden center
● By Richard Gaw
At their March 20 meeting, the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors heard the complaints of several residents of the 26-unit Hillingham development, who targeted both their neighbor – the long-closed Stephens Garden Creations, Inc. and Stephens Aquatic Services, located at 257 Kennett Pike, for the unsightly mess it left behind – and the township for not enforcing stricter regulations for cleaning up the 2.3-acre property that one Hillingham resident called a “nightmare.”
On April 3, many of those same residents in attendance came to hear possible solutions to the question of how the township could play hardball with the property's owners, while not stepping on the toes of its potential sale, one that would lead to the clean-up of Stephens Garden Creations, an action that the residents of the Hillingham development have been pleading for.
The 2.3-acre property is now on the market for $779,900, and advertised as a nursery, greenhouse and florist (retail, wholesale) that features a 2.3-acre lot and 3,112 square feet of living space.
By a vote of 3-0, supervisors Scudder Stevens, Whitney Hoffman and Dr. Richard Leff approved a measure for the township to schedule a hearing before Magistrate District Judge Albert Iacocca of District Court 15-3-04 in Kennett Square immediately, in order to pursue the enforcement of the township's zoning ordinance and appropriate codes against the owner, and seek to impose a penalty that would accrue daily, at what Stevens estimated could be as much as $1,000 a day.
“It doesn't seem our codes and rules provide really effective remedies and mechanisms for enforcing reasonable standards of behavior by landowners in the township,” Stevens said during his proposal. “I think we need to look at our codes and rules and regulations to see if we can tighten that up. That's something I want to pursue, to see if we can address that.”
The board's decision rides coattail with the recent actions of the property's mortgage holder, who last week told township Solicitor David Sander that it began foreclosure proceedings against the property late in 2018, and listed it as part of a sheriff's sale. However, one of the three owners of the business then filed for protection under Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code, which put an end to the sheriff's sale and brought the issue into federal bankruptcy court, where it remains.
Sander said that there is an order from the bankruptcy judge that states that the property must be under agreement of sale by May 6, 2019 and must be sold on or before Aug. 6, 2019. If either of those dates is violated, the mortgage holder will go back into bankruptcy court, file a notice of default on the part of the owner, and seek to have the property sold as part of a sheriff's sale in May or June.
Sander said that the mortgage holder reported an optimism that the property will be cleaned up, either as a result of a sale, or in the form of a coordinated effort up by the mortgage holder and property holders sometime in 2019.
That could be the compromise that the Hillingham residents may have to live with, although several suggested at the March meeting that the township begin the clean-up on its own.
“I don't think there are grounds for the township to authorize its staff or hire a contractor to go onto the property and 'clean it up,'” Sander said. “We're talking about private property here that doesn't look good and it may violate the property maintenance code, but that doesn't mean that the township has a right to go on private property and do what it feels is necessary to make it aesthetically pleasing. I think the township is limited at this point to enforcing the zoning property and maintenance codes against the property owners.”
The April 3 meeting served as the township's response to the complaints issued by the Hillingham residents two weeks earlier, when they not only expressed their frustration, but cited the township's maintenance code. They said that Stephens Garden Creations, Inc. is in violation of Section 168-25, which states that “Properties subject to this section shall be kept free of weeds, overgrown brush, dead vegetation, trash, junk, debris, building materials, any accumulation of newspapers, circular, flyers, notices (except those required by federal, state, or local law), abandoned vehicles, portable storage devices, discarded personal items including, but not limited to, furniture, clothing, large and small appliances, printed material or any other items that give the appearance that the property is abandoned.”
Hillingham resident Joy Davies said that despite the township’s previous efforts to force the businesses’ owners to clean up their site – they had also imposed fines on the company, one of which was paid – it was merely a “token effort” that she said didn’t help much.
Throughout the April 3 meeting, Sander filled in the gaps on several of the issues that were discussed between the residents and supervisors in March, namely, whether the township should consider having the property condemned.
Sander advised against the idea.
“The consensus was that there is nothing on the property that would lead the township to be able to support a finding of condemnation,” he said. “If it was condemned, no one could go on the property, including real estate agents and potential buyers, until it was cleaned up. The only people permitted on the property wold be those who were performing the clean-up.
“While it doesn't look nice, and there are things strewn around the property, the issue becomes 'What is the condition of the property that will allow the township to condemn it?'” Condemning it says that no one can occupy the property until it's in compliance with township codes.”
Condemning the property, Sander said, would also be “counter-intuitive” for the township, given that it may interfere with its potential sale. Echoing the board's decision, Sander recommended that the township continue to enforce its zoning ordinance and property maintenance code.
When asked by a Hillingham resident whether the township has ever been interested in purchasing the property, Sander answered, “No.”
While the potential impact of the township's application with the Magistrate Court remains to be seen, it's a commitment the township is making to the Hillingham residents, Stevens said.
“I thought [the situation] was under control, until you came in and told us [that it wasn't] a few weeks ago,” he told the residents. “I apologize for that. I hope that you feel more positive about your local government, and that you know that we do care. Because you did come in, we're starting a lot of different things at the same time, to try to make things happen.”
“Where can we assure that things will get taken care of?” said supervisor Whitney Hoffman. “I don't want to kibosh a sale that will accelerate improving [the property] by applying more financial penalties, but I don't want anybody in the township to get the impression for one minute that we're not serious about enforcing the codes.”
Sander said that the Hillingham residents would not be left out in the dark about any future action on the abandoned property. If there is a request by the new owner of the property for a zoning change for the purpose of changing its usage, Sander said that the request would go to the township's Zoning Hearing Board, and that all Hillingham residents would be informed of all public hearings related to the request.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.