Sides rest in Stonebridge Mansion hearing

The five-month long zoning hearing between Chadds Ford Township and the owners of Stonebridge Mansion is over, at least for now.

Both sides rested their cases at the conclusion of the Nov. 20 hearing session, but it could be until February before the Zoning Hearing Board announces its decision and it’s possible the loser will appeal that decision.

Drew and Nicole Barnabei, owners of the 25-room mansion at Webb Road and Route 1, want to host special events, such as weddings, through Drexelbrook Catering. The township says that use is not permitted because the property is in a residential zoning district. However, previous testimony revealed that other businesses are in residential zones along Route 1 and that special events have been held at Stonebridge before the Barnabeis bought the property.

The Nov. 20 session began with township solicitor Hugh Donaghue cross examining Domenick Savino, Drexelbrook’s CEO, who testified in October that events at Stonebridge would be limited to a maximum of 150 people and that no event would start before 10 a.m., that all events would end by 10 p.m., that security is provided and all bartenders are certified through the Responsible Alcohol Management Program.

Under questioning from Donaghue, Savino said two events had been held this year and a third had been planned. All three were held — or scheduled — for different days of the week.

Donaghue asked if that meant events could be scheduled for any day of the week. Savino said that was a theoretical possibility.

Savino added that there was a situation just prior to a September wedding at the mansion when a neighbor began mowing his lawn at 5:30 p.m. right at the property line nearest the party site.

On redirect examination from Barnabei Attorney Jim Byrne, Savino said use of the mansion grounds for outdoor events would be limited by the seasons. Outdoor events would typically be held between mid April and mid October. Savino added that they only forecast for weekend events.

At that point, both sides rested their respective cases while entering additional photographs and documents into evidence. Included in those documents was a copy of an online petition signed by residents who want the Barnabeis to be denied their request.

That petition, Byrne said, was filled with  “a great deal of misinformation.” He said many of the people who signed the petition lived as far as five miles away.

At that point, the Zoning Board heard comments from residents.

First to speak was Don Weiss, who sold Stonebridge to the Barnabeis, and who held events at the mansion while he was the owner.

He said that while the property may be operated as a Bed & Breakfast, the conditions the township placed on it are too restrictive to make that economically viable.

Weiss said he held more than 20 events while the owner — events that township supervisors knew about, some that they attended — and there was never a problem with traffic or undue inconvenience to anyone. Those events included a month-long event in 2011 when more than 6,000 people came to Stonebridge.

“The township picks and chooses what it wants to enforce,” Weiss said.

He added that the township, Barnabeis and the Zoning Hearing Board could work this out without the need for either side to appeal a decision to a judge in Media.

Webb Road resident Nick Fuller spoke against the application because it would set a bad precedent. He said that if the Barnabeis could host weddings, then other people could engage in less desirable activities.

Resident Greg Marcotte also wants the Barnabeis denied because of potential noise problems, but Byrne challenged him.

Marcotte and his wife were the ones who posted the online petition, the one that Byrne had already said held misinformation. According to the exchange, the Marcottes included a letter with the petition saying the Barnabeis had held a party with noise that lasted into the night and woke the Marcottes at 1 a.m.

The allegation was wrong, Byrne said, because the Barnabeis were not hosting anything the night in question. The noise was coming from the Brandywine River Museum during an annual Halloween event. The museum is also in a residential district, according to previous testimony.

Donaghue took the opportunity to suggest that if the Marcottes could be disturbed by noise coming from twice as far away as Stonebridge Mansion, then noise from Stonebridge would be even more intrusive.

The last to speak was Lou D’Iorio who has lived next door to Stonebridge for 50 years. He agreed with Weiss that the situation can — and should — be worked out amicably.

D’Iorio also said that there has always been commercial activity in the area and that Stonebridge has never been kept as well as the Barnabeis have maintained it.

While the formal hearing has concluded, there are still other legal procedures that must be addressed. Once the respective attorneys get the hearing transcripts, they have 30 days to file facts and findings of law, and then the zoning board has up to 45 days to render its opinion. Donaghue anticipates a ruling in February.

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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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