Our vote in support of Greylock

by Laura Lucas, CHCA President, and Matt Rutt, CHCA VP of Physical Division
Posted 3/21/24

The CHCA voted to support zoning variances sought by the current owner of Greylock. Here's why.

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Our vote in support of Greylock


By now, you are probably aware that the Chestnut Hill Community Association (CHCA) voted last Thursday to support zoning variances sought by the current owner of Greylock. We have remained silent in this newspaper about our perspective on our role in this important decision, despite criticism from some quarters that we should not be conducting meetings or rendering any decision other than opposition to the entire process.

Before getting into the larger meaning of this opportunity to consider the future of Greylock, it is important to understand our charge from the City of Philadelphia. When an applicant for zoning variances is refused by Licenses and Inspections, they have the right to appeal those refusals and apply for zoning variances. In so doing, they trigger the Registered Community Organization (RCO) review process. As an RCO approved by the City, it is our obligation to conduct public reviews. Unlike the Chestnut Hill Conservancy and Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW) who felt their roles as RCOs could be perceived as conflicted because they hold easements on the property, the CHCA has no such claim. We thus recognized our responsibility to perform our charge of reviewing the zoning variances, not the easements.

Much has been said about whether the zoning process should have preceded the upcoming consideration of amending the easements. Ultimately, this is a decision that was made by the property owner when they made their application to the city for a zoning permit. Accordingly, this matter was referred to us pursuant to the process noted above. The zoning variance application is slated to go before the city Zoning Board of Adjustment on March 27 with or without our community feedback. We felt that it was important for the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) to have community feedback from the RCO process at that hearing.

Easements are private agreements, and their creation, negotiation and amendments are confidential. Amending them can be expensive and time-consuming. Where amendments are complicated, the Orphans' Court could be involved. They become publicly accessible when they are recorded as deeds. In putting the zoning process first, the current owner elected a process guaranteeing public knowledge about the potential for changes in easements. In the interest of transparency, we see this as a good thing.

There has been vivid and vocal concern raised over the past few months about the need to hold easements as inalterable. We firmly believe in the need for easements and that they remain a strong tool to protect properties into perpetuity, and we hope property owners continue to embrace this tool to help Chestnut Hill preserve what it holds dear.

However, we do not believe that amending the Greylock easements weakens or jeopardizes all easements in the community. We feel Greylock is unique. Converted from use as a private residence, it then went through a series of owners whose action or inaction degraded the property, inalterably, with some important interior features removed. While several potential developers have submitted proposals over the years, for an assortment of reasons none have gone forward. And so there Greylock has sat, trapped, deteriorating and overgrown like a bad advertisement for easements and a blight on Chestnut Hill Avenue.

Many community members expressed their concerns at our meetings, in this newspaper, and in the neighborhood. We respect that they expressed their perspectives but did not hear much in the way of concerns addressing how granting the zoning variances would affect them, aside from the Crefeld School. We believe the concerns about the impact of new construction on the school are real, but the inconvenience of construction is rarely a reason for not permitting a project to be built. Construction is a temporary condition about which smart plans can and should be devised to ameliorate the difficulties. As to the long-term impact of new construction on the school, the neighborhood in which Greylock resides is zoned for residential use. The school’s presence is an exception to that zoning. We did not feel that new residences should not be permitted because a school is nearby in a neighborhood that is zoned residential.

In this process of the community speaking out, we are grateful that so many people care. That is what makes Chestnut Hill tick. The voices of protest were much stronger than those of support, but we came to understand that there were many who were not comfortable speaking up but would love to see Greylock have a new life. While their voice was quieter, we felt they needed to be included in our considerations.

In our final decision, the CHCA board voted to support the proposal. Prior to his vote of support for the application, Matt Rutt outlined his thoughts in these five points: One) it preserves the mansion, carriage house and front lawns, which comprise the main public views in a way that has the best chance of being financially viable over the long haul; Two) the lack of substantial negative impact on surrounding neighbors beyond temporary construction issues; Three) the new construction will be clustered and largely out of public view while addressing things like stormwater runoff, landscaping, and emergency access; Four) the applicant agrees to consult our zoning committees on specific design aspects and materials before obtaining building permits; and Five) community is made up of people and this property has sat vacant for years. This plan would bring people back to this property – people to support and volunteer in the community, shop and dine, participate in our clubs, schools and houses of worship, and restore vitality to this corner of Chestnut Hill.

A healthy community is one that continues to evolve while holding onto what matters. We feel this project has the potential to accomplish this in a meaningful way.