Property owners, township butt heads

The owners of Stonebridge Mansion are saying Chadds Ford Township is improperly denying them full use of their property and have gone to the Zoning Hearing Board seeking relief. The township is contesting that position.

Stonebridge is the large property on the west side of Webb Road at the intersection of Route 1. It’s in the R-1 residential zoning district, but carries with it conditional approval for use as a Bed & Breakfast.

It’s the township’s position that no commercial use of the property, except for the limited use as a B&B, is permitted and that the current owners are trying to use the property for commercial purposes.

Owners Drew and Nicola Barnabei say the code does allow other uses, such as renting the property for weddings and various other private parties. Supervisors sent solicitor Hugh Donaghue to the hearing to contest the Barnabeis’ request.

Specifically, the Barnabeis assert that proper interpretation of the zoning code allows them to rent the property as a continuation of nonconforming use — grandfathered use — or as an accessory use. In the alternative, they are seeking a variance from the Zoning Hearing Board so they may rent out for private parties.

A June event planned for the Delaware County Brandywine Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau at Stonebridge had to change venues when the township sought an injunction in the Court of Common Pleas. An out of court settlement was reached in which the Barnabeis agreed not host the event in exchange for being permitted to host a wedding in September. Going through a zoning hearing was also part of the agreement.

Township resident Don Weiss, along with business partners, bought the 7-plus-acre property in 2007 as an investment. In 2008 they went before the Planning Commission and received permission to subdivide the property. They also went through a conditional use hearing for approval to use the large house as a B&B. They sold the property in the latter part of 2011.

Under direct examination from attorney Jim Byrne Jr., who is representing the Barnabeis, Weiss testified that the property had already been used for various events that went beyond any B&B limitation, and that the township knew about those uses and, in fact, took part in some.

The Chadds Ford Township Republican Party held fund-raisers at Stonebridge while Weiss and his partners owned the property, he said, and supervisors attended.

Stonebridge was also the site of a month-long charity event for the Oxford Art Alliance in the spring of 2011. More than 4,000 people were in and out of the property during the showcase event, he said, and the township even granted the use of a sign.

Food, wine, beer and various items were sold on the property during the Art Alliance Showcase, Weiss added. And while Stonebridge was not rented out for the event, part of the agreement was that the alliance would paint the rooms.

Parking was onsite for that May to June event, as is required.

Additionally, the site was part of the Chadds Ford Historical Society’s Candlelight Christmas one year, and has also been used for Bible study, a christening and a prom party, he said.

Weiss also answered questions regarding traffic in to and out of the property. There are two points of ingress and egress. One is on Webb Road, the other on Route 1.

He said there was concern as far back as the B&B hearings that the Webb Road driveway was too narrow for fire trucks to get through. However, it was later shown that such vehicles can get into the property from that point.

A smoke machine set off alarms when a movie was being filmed at Stonebridge. The fire company did get its truck through without any problem, Weiss said.

Much of his testimony regarding past use and the ability for fire trucks to enter the property was repeated under cross-examination from Donaghue. However, Weiss did say that he had no recollection of ever having any conversation with township or county officials regarding any type of accessory use. In formal proceedings and in correspondence, the only uses mentioned were residential and as a B&B.

Weiss also said that he never told any prospective buyer, or the Barnabeis in particular, that the property could be used for anything other than a home and a B&B.

Some of the interaction became pointed when Donaghue asked Weiss about his reasons for originally buying Stonebridge.

Weiss acknowledged that he and his partners made the purchased as an investment, but there was a pause before answering when Donaghue asked whether subdividing the land was to maximize profit.

Weiss, who is an attorney, took a moment before responding: “Since I have to tell the whole truth…We subdivided so you [Donaghue] could buy the back lot.”

He said under further cross-examination that Donaghue never did make an offer to buy that parcel.

It was also testified that the B&B limitations include serving no meals other than breakfast and an afternoon tea, that only five of the seven bedrooms could be rented out at any one time and there was to be a limited number of cars on the site.

During re-direct examination, Weiss noted that the Brandywine Battlefield Park is also in the R-1 district, but there is commercial activity there with various items being sold on that property.

After two hours of testimony from Weiss, the July 17 zoning hearing was continued to Aug. 21. Attorneys plan to call more witnesses then.

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About Rich Schwartzman

Rich Schwartzman has been reporting on events in the greater Chadds Ford area since September 2001 when he became the founding editor of The Chadds Ford Post. In April 2009 he became managing editor of ChaddsFordLive. He is also an award-winning photographer.

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