133 E. Mermaid Lane: Google Maps

by Wesley Ratko

There was confusion and opposition at the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Development Review Committee meeting Tuesday night over the case of a use variance denied to two tenants of 133 E Mermaid Lane to operate their herbal consulting business along this residential street.

Those tenants, Andrew Celwyn and Maia Toll, are the owners and operators of an herbal remedy business called Herbiary, which has retail locations at 7721 Germantown Avenue and Reading Terminal Market.

According to Toll, she and Celwyn came to the Mermaid Lane site a little more than a year ago looking to expand a feature of their business that provides “herbal consultations.”

“I’m trained in holistic nutrition and alternative medicine,” said Toll, adding that she works with clients to provide additional support in making nutritional choices. “People come to me to discuss their health, but all of our sales happen on Germantown Avenue.” There is, however, a sink and a stove in the space they operate out of that are sometimes used for demonstration purposes.

The neighbors on either side of 133 are opposed to Herbiary’s use of the property – specifically in a garage building in the rear – for teaching purposes. The neighbors claim these classes bring an influx of strangers into the rear area behind their property that intrudes on their privacy and disturbs the residential character of the block.

There are six living spaces at 133 in two buildings – a main house with four apartments and a stone twin with two. The main house formerly had three apartments on the upper floor and a business office on the lower level, which for decades was occupied by a contractor who used the garages to house his trucks. The garage building in the rear of the property, which once had five bays, has since been modified into an art studio, with a few of the bays consolidated to increase the interior space.

That space is now the site of the Herbiary’s activities and the source of the conflict. The existing use variance on the property only allowed the business office in the main house. But because that office is now an apartment, the use variance needed to be changed to allow the office use in the read garage building. That variance was denied, for reasons members of the DRC weren’t able to ascertain. Celwyn and Toll are seeking support from the DRC for a new variance.

Vice president of the CHCA Physical Division Joyce Lenhardt noted that while the issue of the denied variance brought the conflict to the CHCA, the refusal does nothing to address the actual problem. “They have to go back to L&I and get the right refusal,” she said.

“Your application says that you’re applying to use the building as a business office with a conference room, garages, and apartments, which is exactly the same as the current use,” said Lenhardt. “But in fact you’re using the building for classes.”

Toll told the DRC that their lawyer, who was not present, said the garage use did not legally constitute a school, but instead an office that hosts workshops, an important distinction.

According to Toll, these workshops can be as large as 20 people at a time, and are held five or six times a month.

“It sounds to me as though the garage has been turned into a classroom and the office has been turned into an apartment,” said LUPZ representative Cynthia Brey.

While the zoning variance appeared to have little to do with the operation of Herbiary, the opposing neighbors were vocal in their disapproval of the classes being held at 133 E Mermaid Lane.

Near neighbor Kristopher Jacobson has lived on Mermaid Lane for more than 20 years. He addressed the committee, saying that before Herbiary, the contractor would leave in the morning and return around 4:00pm during the week, which meant that most of the time few people associated with the business were on the property. Herbiary’s classes are a change from that.“The use has flipped from no clients to lots of clients,” Jacobson said. “It’s gone from being a quiet business to one that brings strangers in.” He said the classes Toll described are held Saturday and Sunday from 9:00am to 9:00pm and bring many new strangers into the rear of the property. He added that because the garage building has no conventional doors or windows, during warm weather months classes are conducted with all of the doors open.

When committee member John Landis asked how he was being inconvenienced, Jacobson said there were an enormous number of strangers using the back as a public space.

“We moved in next to garages, not this,” another neighbor said.

Discussions between Herbiary and the Mermaid Lane near neighbors have only been conducted via letters and emails; the neighbors refuse to talk to Celwyn and Toll until they stop holding classes.

Jacobson and others stepped up their objections to Herbiary’s use of the space after September 22, citing the beginning of the school year. “It was substantively different than what was there before,” he said.

“It doesn’t sound as though anyone has acted in bad faith, but there is a conflict,” said Landis. He added his opinion that it appeared Herbiary was a non-conforming use that would not pass the “hardship test” imposed by the city when determining whether granting a variance is warranted.

The DRC suggested the parties hold future meetings with the property owner, Ellen Deacon, and do a little zoning research to determine what is and isn’t legal. Besides that, the DRC took no formal action.