Hamanassett Estate Zoning Hearing Nov. 17th, 2020
After being on the market for over 5 years The Hamanassett Estate has entered into an agreement of sale for the fourth time. The series of rescinded offers and unsuccessful letters of intent have left the owners Glenn and Ashley Mon in a stressful situation. Having purchased the property in 2001 the Mon family is only the third owner of this historic estate. After renovating the property and bringing it back to life, the Mon’s have run it as a bed and breakfast for almost 20 years. The original estate of 36 acres was divided in 2003. 6 acres remained with the manor and the other 30 acres were split among 11 high-end homes, built along 2 private roads Indian Springs Drive and Feather Hill Lane creating a new development called Hamanassett at Darlington.
This agreement of sale is contingent upon the buyer, Illuminated Hearts Residential Care, securing a special exception to the current zoning. The exception would allow the property to be used as a personal care home for up to 13 elderly individuals. The Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) is being asked to authorize the exception pursuant to the Borough Zoning Code §185-124 which grants them the authority to permit the requested use. The current use, R1 ½ is defined in the code under §185-10. Check out § 185-10E of the Zoning Code to view permitted special exceptions for an R1½ property.
The meeting opened with Mr. Glenn Mon, the owner providing a brief history of the Hamanassett Estate, and the description of the proposed operation by Ms. Kionna Perry, the COO, and Co-Founder of Illuminated Hearts. She presented the plan for the property stating that it would serve as a personal care home. She was deliberate in noting that this will not be a residential assisted care facility. She elaborated noting that a personal care home serves as a way for the elderly to age in place and to live together in a family-like setting. Sharing group meals and receiving assistance with daily needs such as bathing, dressing, and companionship. The proposed use is defined in the CHB zoning code § 185-4. She clarified that the proposal is strictly for a non-skilled facility as opposed to a skilled nursing facility which would require medical staff.
The opposition to the proposal was fierce and swift from the homeowners residing on Indian Spring Drive, Feather Hill Lane, and Bonnie Lane. The HOA hired Mr. H. Fintan McHugh to represent their interest and the meeting felt at times like a courtroom drama unfolding before our very eyes. Each resident emboldened by the inquiries of the others to pursue their own line of questioning. This was most evident during the cross-examination phase when the residents and Mr. McHugh questioned Ms. Perry and Mr. Mon.
After a robust cross-examination of the witnesses, a series of objections, and testimony the following themes repeated themselves throughout the 4.5-hour hearing.
Indian Springs Drive is a narrow private road that serves as an entranceway to the Hamanassett Estate and the 11 HOA properties. This limited access spurred a flurry of debate over the current number of individuals who visit Hamanassett and how the new proposed use would impact this number of visits. The questioning included everything from a debate over deliveries, multiple inquiries on proposed staffing, and the number of guests frequenting the property now and in the future should the exception be granted. This issue was not settled, and each side held to their narrative. The applicant noted no increase, the residents insisting that an increase would be inevitable.
LIABILITY & SAFETY
A neighborhood incident of a birthday party trailer blocking the road was used to highlight the potential issue of access for emergency vehicles. The limited width of Indian Springs Drive, combined with the advanced age of residents in a personal care home raised concerns of potential liability for the HOA who bears full responsibility for the maintenance of the private roads.
Also, during the hearing, Ms. Perry described a future plan that might include the ability to welcome dementia patients which would require additional licensing. This took the meeting down a path of detailed questioning regarding neighborhood safety and additional staffing needs. The responses provided by Ms. Perry clarified that systems would be in place to mitigate any potential risk, but they did not appear to assuage the worries raised by participants on the call.
FAIR HOUSING/ADA/ REHABILITATION ACT
The application for the special exception provided two paths to a permitted use. One is to classify the residents of the personal care home as a family and the other is to allow it as institutional use which could be authorized under §185-10E(4) of the zoning code.
The applicant presented testimony by Ms. Michelle Pinkowski, an attorney specializing in the application of Federal Fair Housing, Americans with Disabilities, and Rehabilitation Acts to local zoning codes.
She testified that the code could not discriminate against residents with disabilities clearing the opposition previously noted by the residents in the section above and opening a door for potential litigation should the ZHB fail to authorize the special exception. There was an objection to the extent of her testimony and the legal conclusions that she had inferred thus cutting her testimony short.
There was a lot of vigor around the question of the fiscal viability of Illuminated Hearts, and their various branches. Homeowners wanted assurances that the applicant would be able to finance the necessary updates required to bring the property up to code and to keep it a going concern. The questions turned personal with one homeowner asking if Ms. Perry had ever filed for bankruptcy to which she replied, “No.” At which point he noted that a document with additional information would be submitted into evidence.
Dating back to 1856 The Hamanassett Estate was once a summer house for the prestigious Meigs family. Then a headquarters for the famous Lima Fox Hunt led by the Dolan family and now a bed and breakfast restored by the Mon’s. This estate is the epitome of the “Guided by our History” motto that once adorned the Borough of Chester Heights seal.
It is clear that Mr. Mon, a former member of the Chester Heights Historical Society, values the importance of the historical significance of the estate. That’s why he and his wife, Ashley, have pursued buyers that are interested in keeping the historical integrity of the estate.
During their testimony Illuminated Hearts plainly stated that the footprint will remain the same, but that they will need to make reasonable modifications to meet PA guidelines for a personal care home including, but not limited to adding stair lifts, an elevator, ramps inside the home, handles/ railings as appropriate.
This estate is not on the national historical register, but it is on the state list for historically significant locations and is mentioned in the Chester Heights Comprehensive Plan on page 6-7 as a historical resource in the borough. These designations do not restrict the alteration of the property but can be a consideration for the zoning hearing board when granting a special exception.
The historical fate of the Hamanassett Estate has been in jeopardy several times. Including once when a resident of the HOA -Hamanassett at Darlington showed interest in purchasing and developing this property. He would have been able to do so without a zoning hearing since the property is zoned R1 ½.
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
CHB is a tiny town of 2.5 square miles and 3500 residents, give or take 10 years of census data and a few developments. If you tuned into the hearing you will have noticed that the Zoning Solicitor Mr. Chris Furlong was replaced by Mr. J. Michael Sheridan because he lives within 500 feet of the Hamanassett Estate.
Alternate Zoning Hearing Board member Mr. Justin Buccilli replaced Mr. Glenn Mon on the Zoning Hearing Board for the purpose of this hearing for obvious conflict reasons. Mr. Peter Rohana who represented the Borough interest is technically the alternate solicitor for the Borough of Chester Heights, however, he too lives within 500 feet of the property and therefore should have most likely not acted in the capacity as a borough solicitor, but rather as a party to the hearing.
The hearing ended with a request for a continuance to allow the borough to review the matter and to present testimony should they choose to do so. Mr. Mon requested a hearing be held the first week of December noting time was of the essence as is the case with most agreements of sale.
After a few stern words from the ZHB alternate solicitor advising the board that they could do as they pleased and could take the full 30 days until the next meeting, and Mr. Rohana noting that the borough would need time to review and prepare, a continuation was scheduled for December 15th, 2020 at 7 pm.
The next meeting to be held via Zoom once again.
If the special exception is granted and the buyer fails to obtain zoning or building permits within 6 months the exception reverts to R1 ½ per the code.
Unless otherwise specified by the Board, a special exception or variance shall expire if the applicant fails to obtain a zoning or building permit within six months from the date of authorization thereof or fails to commence active work within six months from the date of issuance of the permit for such work.
This meeting was recorded and a full transcript has been made. These should be available at the borough office for your review.