February 12, 2009


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Court backs Woodmere plans; neighbors to appeal

The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas last week settled a long-running legal dispute between the Woodmere Art Museum and the North Chestnut Hill Neighbors Association, permitting the museum to proceed with plans to build a 25,000-square-foot addition.

“Woodmere presented clear, precise and substantial evidence as to the need to protect its art collection and to maintain its status as a viable art museum,” Common pleas court Judge Idee C. Fox wrote in a Jan. 27 legal opinion. “In addition, testimony was presented to establish the support of the community.”

Common pleas court took the case last year — for a second time — after it passed through a circuitous route, with lengthy stops at the Chestnut Hill Community Association, the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Commonwealth Court.

The Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment unanimously approved a zoning variance for the addition in June 15, 2005 (nine months after the first of four ZBA hearings on the issue), but the neighbors association appealed the decision that July.

According to Judge Fox’s opinion, the neighbors association argued that Woodmere could go smaller with the addition and claimed that Woodmere’s plans for additional parking would not comply with the city zoning and would expose neighbors to excess light.

Between July 2005 and January 2008, Woodmere’s variance was affirmed by the city common pleas court, sent to Commonwealth Court on appeal, passed back to the ZBA for additional “findings of fact,” reaffirmed by the ZBA, appealed again by the neighbors and ultimately solidified by the common pleas court.

Judge Fox decided that the ZBA was right to conclude that Woodmere’s architects, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, had designed the addition to meet Woodmere’s needs and provide adequate parking and headlight screening.

“In making its decision, the ZBA examined the entire record,” Fox wrote. “This is the standard required. The record as a whole and not testimony or evidence taken out of context, should be the basis upon which this decision is reviewed.”

Fox was not at all convinced by the neighbors association’s argument, which, she described as “picayune.” She said the association based its case on “portions of testimony and evidence taken out of context.”

“This is very welcome news for the Woodmere Art Museum and for all of us who treasure the many unique contributions of Philadelphia artists,” Woodmere President Dianne Meyer, Esq., said in a statement released last week. “Throughout this process, we have pledged to work with our neighbors to ensure that this addition is one that is good for the Museum, good for our neighbors, and beneficial to Chestnut Hill and the larger arts community.”

Funding for the addition will come from a $5.5 million bequest the museum received in November 2000 from the Dwight V. Dowley Estate.

Robert Shusterman, a member of the neighbors association who was one of Woodmere’s most outspoken opponents, did not return a call for comment by deadline.

Woodmere might want to hold off the celebration a while longer, though.

Robert Shusterman, an attorney who has been one of Woodmere’s most outspoken opponents, said Tuesday that he plans to appeal the case before the Commonwealth Court.

“We don’t believe the Commonwealth’s questions were adequately answered,” he said, referring to the state court’s instructions for the ZBA to settle the size, parking and screening issues.

Shusterman has until the end of the month to file the appeal.

To read Judge Fox’s court opinion, visit our Web site: