by Wesley Ratko
Approval to support a use variance that would allow Balance Chestnut Hill to relocate their facility to 18 West Willow Grove Ave. took a surprising turn at the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s March Board meeting Thursday night.
The matter had been sent to the board from the Development Review Committee following their unanimous approval to support the variance two days prior. The Board, however, tabled the motion to support the variance after a lengthy and, at times, contentious discussion that left many board members with unanswered questions.
Board member Richard Snowden, whose Bowman Properties owns several neighboring buildings along Germantown Avenue, sparked the controversy by insisting that a proviso be attached to the motion supporting the zoning variance to make it contingent on the successful completion of an agreement between Bowman Properties and the owner of another property adjacent to 18 West Willow Grove – Senior Care of Chestnut Hill at 7926 Germantown Avenue.
The Senior Care property is now owned by Iron Stone Strategic Capital Partners, which also owns 18 West Willow Grove. Snowden told the Board that access to the Senior Care property is provided via a narrow driveway that runs between two of Snowden’s properties. According to Snowden, seniors are brought to the center by buses that, due to a lack of turnaround space, are forced to back out onto Germantown Avenue. Over the years, Snowden said, these reversing buses have collided with Bowman-owned buildings and caused $30,000 in property damage.
“You can’t grant a variance when traffic at the south end of the property is so poorly managed,” Snowden said. He added that he wants a new agreement from Iron Stone Capital that pledges to better manage the traffic on and off the site, as well as pay for damages caused to Bowman buildings.
An original agreement made between Bowman Properties and the building’s former owner back in 1992 required that a turnaround space be provided on the property. To date, no such space has been provided. At the time, the CHCA was also party to the 1992 agreement. Because of that, Snowden is asking that the Community Association enforce it.
Snowden repeatedly stated that he was not opposed to Balance Chestnut Hill moving into the new location and did not want to hurt the business.
“I will be down at the zoning board, either by letter or in person, in support of this variance if we get these things resolved,” he said. “This is not a Balance issue.”
Board member Elizabeth Bales voiced her objection to the proviso.
“I can’t support holding Balance hostage over this,” she said, but added that the CHCA needs to enforce its agreements.
Snowden rejected the word “hostage,” but suggested the word “leverage” was more appropriate. “Your moment is now,” Snowden told the Board, saying that if support for the variance was granted before an agreement was in place, there would be no incentive to honor the existing agreement.
Board member Joyce Lenhardt expressed dismay that the issue wasn’t brought before the Development Review and Land Use Planning and Zoning Committees when the project was undergoing review by those bodies.
“We shouldn’t be doing this here,” she said. “It’s not the way we’re supposed to operate.”
Her sentiments were echoed by Larry McEwen, co-chair of the DRC, who added that the issue should have come before those committees and been settled there before moving on for Board approval.
“Had it come there, and we as a committee felt that it was not appropriate because it didn’t have to do with Balance, at least we would have known.”
Board member Stephanie Chomentowski told Snowden that he’d put the Board in a difficult position and asked him what steps he had taken to rectify the disagreement.
“I have had endless conversations with the property owners,” Snowden said. He added that his grievances were being expressed as a near neighbor.
All of the parties involved disagreed as to the reasons why the matter hadn’t come before the DRC for review. Snowden told the Board that he’d been asked by retail recruiter Eileen Reilly to keep his concerns quiet so as not to “muddy the waters” in getting the variance for Balance.
Reilly disagreed, saying she didn’t intend to tell him not to speak. She said that she recognized Snowden’s right to protect his property but said that her job was to protect new business, something she takes very seriously.
Addressing the Board, she added: “I respectfully ask that this board honor Balance’s efforts to work through the system. They did everything that you asked them to.”
Reilly said that a delay would not only harm Balance, which has plans in place to hire more trainers for the larger location, but would jeopardize a plan to move a frozen yogurt vendor into the spot Balance currently occupies at 5 E. Highland Ave.
Andrew Eisenstein, managing director of Iron Stone, told the Board that the matter was just a misunderstanding.
“Senior day care is an important use in the community,” he said. He told the board he and his partners had owned the property at 7926 for close to seven years now and during that time he had met frequently with Bowman Properties officials.
Eisenstein added that the damage to buildings was caused by SEPTA Paratransit buses, which he does not control. He said Bowman officials had approached him within the last two weeks with a request to “reinforce an agreement.” Eisenstein said a new agreement had been e-mailed to him at the end of the business day on Thursday and that he hadn’t had time to review it.
“We have something to work out here and I’m happy to work it out,” he said. “Maybe there is some ‘dollars and cents’… but at the end of the day this has nothing to do with Balance.”
Despite Reilly’s plea for urgency, the board voted to table the project. The matter will return to the DRC next month for further discussion.