A Court of Common Pleas judge reversed the city’s decision to allow a property owner to subdivide a property on the estate of Keewaydin, located at 540 W. Moreland Ave.
A Court of Common Pleas judge reversed the city’s decision to allow a property owner to subdivide a property on the estate of Keewaydin, located at 540 W. Moreland Ave., preventing immediate development from being built on the property.
Near neighbors are “thrilled the judge took her time and put out a well-reasoned opinion,” said their attorney, Paul Toner. “This is an example of how the court system and the review of these cases is supposed to work.”
The city’s decision, via its Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA), to allow the subdivision came despite the opposition of Chestnut Hill’s two primary registered community organizations – The Chestnut Hill Conservancy and the Chestnut Hill Community Association (CHCA). Their opposition stemmed from the developer’s unwillingness to provide details on plans for the subdivided lot.
The developer, Ganos, LLC, had initially planned to build an apartment complex on the lot, then abandoned those plans after the company was unable to gain support for a variance from neighbors. Residents felt that any new structures built on Keewaydin would not fit the character of that section of the neighborhood, which features stately homes and expansive lawns.
The case’s ruling was particularly scathing about Frank DiCicco, who was the ZBA’s chairman at the time.
According to the written ruling, the hearing was “replete with evidentiary rulings by ZBA Chairman DiCicco that unfairly disallowed any reasonable inquiry into the potential impact to the community.” The ruling also said that DiCicco “excluded relevant evidence during the hearing particularly from concerned community members and neighbors.”
Lori Salganicoff, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy, which was an appellant in the case, called the outcome “a relief.”
“Our historic district here is about both the historic architecture and the open space, and how they interact with each other,” she said. “Buildings in this community were built with the idea that we're right next to the Wissahickon, and we want to feel like we’re near the Wissahickon. These open front lawns (on West Moreland Avenue) allow for a sense of community because we have shared landscapes across each other’s lawns.”
The ruling was the second major reversal of a ZBA ruling in Chestnut Hill in less than six months. In September, the Court of Common Pleas also overturned a ZBA decision to allow the by-right construction of a five-story, 33-unit apartment complex at 10 Bethlehem Pike, the site of a former Sunoco station adjacent to the Chestnut Hill Baptist Church. Judge Anne Marie Coyle presided over both cases.
“This is a great win for the neighbors and a credit to their hard work,” said Anne McNiff, executive director of the CHCA. “It was also gratifying to see that the recommendations and testimonies of the registered community organizations (the Community Association and the Conservancy) were recognized and upheld in the legal decision to overturn the variance approval.”
Salganicoff said that despite the lawsuit, the Conservancy does not dislike all development.
“Just not if it comes at the expense of the existing character of the community,” she said.
The Local asked Toner if he thinks the ruling will affect the way the ZBA makes decisions in the future.
“Hopefully this will allow the board to always make sure that they’re listening to the concerns of the neighbors, and hearing evidence about how development will affect near neighbors,” he said.
The ZBA, however, is now composed of an entirely new set of people since its ruling on 540 W. Moreland was made in August 2021.
“There were quite a number of these rulings that were reversed because they did not consider the community’s interests sufficiently,” Salganicoff said. “We’re hopeful that we’ll see a ZBA that is more supportive of beneficial development and not of development wherever it can be squeezed in.”
Near neighbors Michelle Conners and Judy Berkman both thanked the Chestnut Hill Conservancy and nearby neighbors for their support in the case.
“I felt very validated by the Court of Common Pleas stating that the zoning board should have paid more attention not only to what was going on with this variance but also the fact that the participants were shut down by the zoning board and not heard,” she said.