by Pete Mazzaccaro
Herbiary, a purveyor of herbal remedies, skin care products and gifts at 7721 Germantown Ave., will close this week for good.
Andrew Celwyn, who with partner Maia Toll has owned the store in Chestnut Hill for eight years, said his last day will be Saturday, May 24, after which he and Toll will relocate to Asheville, N.C. Unlike other business closures, however, Celwyn said the move has nothing to do with the health of the business. Business, he said, has been growing. Instead it’s Chestnut Hill, specifically the Chestnut Hill Community Association, which Celwyn said had a hand in stifling his business’ expansion.
“While we think that the Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy area is a great place for our type of business, and we are very thankful to have some lovely people who have patronized our shop for eight years (both on Rex Avenue and at our current location),” Celwyn wrote to the Local in an email, “It is obvious to us and to many other people that the Chestnut Hill Community Association is simply too difficult to work with.”
Herbiary’s history with the Chestnut Hill Community Association began early last year when Celwyn sought a zoning variance for an E. Mermaid Lane property garage where he had begun offering classes. Those classes eventually prompted several near neighbors to petition the CHCA to oppose the variance.
After several months of meetings with the CHCA’s Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee, Celwyn and Toll decided to pull their variance application and stopped using the property for classes.
“The issues that we faced when working on the application for zoning on Mermaid Lane were extremely troubling,” Celwyn wrote. “The CHCA held meetings (about) the property without prior notification in the Chestnut Hill Local, and held meetings where we were not listed on the agenda yet discussed anyway. This was under the guise that discussing the property fell under ‘old business.’ As much as we felt we were in the right in terms of using a space that had been used for business for over 90 years, and only on an occasional basis at that, we couldn’t continue to spend more of our energy in such a negative process.”
CHCA Community Manager Celeste Hardester said she was sorry to see Herbiary close and thought it unfair to attribute that closing to the CHCA
“The CHCA is sorry to hear that the Herbiary is taking its business away from this community,” she said. “We know, as a result of the meetings we had with Andrew Celwyn and Maia Toll, that many people valued their business and the services they provided.
“We are disturbed that Herbiary is attributing the CHCA as their reason for leaving Chestnut Hill. In 2012, Herbiary attempted to expand its business without obtaining legal permits. It then sought a variance, which contained language that did not address the intended use. The neighbors closest to the property in question were not comfortable with the use, and expressed their feelings very clearly. It was a complicated situation, and the work of CHCA committees was very challenging due to all these factors.”
Hardester noted that it was not the CHCA that stopped that process, but rather Celwyn and Toll, who withdrew their application.
“After the CHCA committees spent many hours talking, listening, attempting to resolve, and offering to hold neighborhood meetings to help develop alternate suggestions, the Herbiary closed the door on further discussion,” she said. “The CHCA issued a letter of non-support to the Zoning Board of Adjustment but continued to offer to hold land-use discussions to find a use for the property that would be acceptable to the owner and to neighbors. The offer was not accepted.”
Celwyn insists, however, that the CHCA process was to blame. While he agreed that many volunteers had the best interest of the community in mind, the process was spoiled by the few.
“While I know that the folks on the CHCA board and various committees are volunteers and appreciate that many of them are trying to better their community through service, unfortunately there are a few bad apples who are undermining the very process they are meant to serve,” he said.
Joyce Lenhardt, vice president of the CHCA’s Physical Division, of which the Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee is a part, said that one thing applicants must understand is that, in the end, adjacent neighbors do have significant standing. And that, in the end, a variance is a request to alter zoning for an applicant who demonstrates a hardship to him or her if that zoning is not changed.
In the end, the classes Herbiary wanted to conduct at the Mermaid Lane property presented a greater hardship to the near neighbors.
“The affect that the (variance applicant’s) use has on (adjacent neighbors) is weighed more heavily than other neighbors who may live further away,” Lenhardt explained. “ As a committee, we do try to consider whether the use has a community benefit and weigh it against any negative effects. In this case, the negative effects outweighed the community benefit.”