Board approves controversial home

Despite objections from residents and professionals, Birmingham Township supervisors approved the Certificate of Appropriateness for a new home that opponents say doesn’t belong.

The board voted 3-0 to grant the certificate to Anthony Diver for the property at 1236 Birmingham Road as recommended by the township Historical and Architectural Review Board. The approval of the HARB recommendation came with a list of conditions as recommended by township solicitor Joseph “Skip” Brion.

Diver wants to build a two-story home in the historic Birmingham Corridor — within part of the battlefield of the 1777 Battle of Brandywine — on the site of a previous ranch house. The building footprint would contain the same 2,500 square feet, but the second story would increase the square footage and raise the elevation. There would also be a four-car garage.

According to Doug and Kate Marshall, adjoining property owners on Meetinghouse Road, that extra height and removal of large trees would make the second story visible from their property, and they object to that.

The Marshalls are also questioning the appropriateness of the permit to demolish the original house. The township solicitor admitted that the zoning officer issued the permit without the applicant's providing a Certificate of Appropriateness, but that the oversight was an honest mistake.

Doug Marshall previously said he would take legal action against the township should supervisors approve the certificate. However, he said after the vote that he would decide on a course of action after he has a better understanding of the time frame.

The approval does not become official until the board approves a formal resolution next month.

During the Aug. 3 meeting, Marshall read a letter from William Worth and family, property owners on Meetinghouse Road, asking supervisors to reconsider the proposed architecture and specific location of the house.

“Revolutionary War history has always impacted Birmingham Township, and we truly believe that its citizens would not want any new structure that would jeopardize the natural beauty and historic nature of this bucolic countryside.,” Marshall read.

He also read similar comments from Randall Spackman, who owns the Spackman Farm in Thornbury Township on the border with Birmingham.

“I think it is very poor how the township picks and chooses which rules to enforce, on a whim, without looking at the big picture where it counts…It seems like, all of Birmingham's rules can be picked and chosen,” he read.

Also objecting was HARB member Nancy Needham, who urged the supervisors to deny the certificate.

“The issue is whether there is a fit, or match between this proposed house and the HARB guidelines, which were designed to protect the historic corridor. I reviewed the guidelines and I don’t feel that there is a fit,” Needham said.

She went on to say that Diver’s right to build a house is not in dispute, that the dispute is the location of the house.

“I do think the residents have the right to have this precious resource protected. It’s really not a question of denying Diver his rights; it’s a question of denying this particular house in this particular location because it doesn’t fit the guidelines,” she said.

The Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art — which owns Birmingham Hill on the other side of Meetinghouse Road — expressed similar sentiments.

Conservancy Associate Director David Shields reiterated the opinion that the plan would lead to the removal of too many mature trees and ruin the scenic view of the area. He’s also concerned with the home’s design, height and location. He called the planned exterior “inappropriate and out of scale with the existing structures.”

“This is the most historic township in the county, and the Diver property is in probably one of the most historic parts of the township. The township’s historic guidelines should be followed scrupulously with respect to the Diver residence,” Shields said. “I’ve reviewed the guidelines carefully. I listened to the HARB when they were going through their report, and I’m concerned they’re not really following their guidelines.”

Shields urged the board to deny the certificate, but said they should add conditions if they do approve it.

Karen Marshall, the heritage preservation coordinator for Chester County, said that the plan would have an adverse effect on the integrity of the historic district and that the board should contract with a professional preservation architect to review the plans before approving them.

“Please, do not approve the Certificate of Appropriateness until a professional preservation architect has reviewed it…I implore you…I don’t think you’ve met the law,” she said.

A professional preservation architect was in attendance. Mary Werner DeNadai, a principal with John Milner Architects and a Birmingham Township resident, said the HARB “has not done its due diligence.”

“I’ve been very disappointed with the HARB in the past and, in my review of the proposed design for this property and the review of the historic district guidelines, I find it astounding that the [HARB] did not outright deny acceptance of this application,” DeNadai said.

She said the intent of the guidelines is to “preserve the setting and historic views of the battlefield.” She said the plans violate those guidelines and the certificate should be denied.

As for the architecture of the proposed home, she referred specifically to a turret and conical roof as being out of character for the traditional architecture of the district.

Supervisor Bill Kirkpatrick opened his comments by saying that the battlefield has changed over the years with a variety of homes being developed. He said even the previous home was a ranch house, a style that did not exist during the time of the battle.

He also said that the War of Independence was fought, at least in part, “so that we would become a country of laws, among which was the fact that we didn’t have to listen to a regent or individual who could change his mind.”

Kirkpatrick said supervisors have an obligation to assess Diver’s application based on the laws, ordinance and regulations that are in place at the time the application was made.

He conceded that the house is large, but the previous house “did not have historic significance. It was a ranch house built in the 1960s. I don’t know how that has historic significance.”

But he added that some of the concerns raised have merit. With that in mind, he made a motion to approve the certificate, but with conditions.

Those conditions, prepared by the township solicitor, include the location and construction be in accordance with the plans submitted to the township, and that a landscape plan, prepared by a landscape architect, be submitted to supervisors for review. Further, no building permit shall be issued until all conditions are met.

Supervisor Scott Boorse echoed Kirkpatrick’s comments, adding that HARB did do its due diligence and that the home — designed by architect Tony Webb — does meet township regulations. (Webb is chairman of the HARB, but recused himself from deliberations.)

The measure passed 3-0. The formal resolution will be prepared, then read at the next Board of Supervisors meeting.

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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