After two years, controversial Hellam winery nears another vote
A two-year squabble over a proposed winery and wedding venue in Hellam Township is coming to a head.
The project's zoning application process has pitted applicants Bill and Wendy Hewitt, who live in Springettsbury Township, against the would-be venue's neighbors, who argue noise and traffic will change the character of the neighborhood.
At a hearing Thursday in front of the Hellam Township board, Jarred Neal, an engineer with Traffic Planning and Design Inc. in Harrisburg, testified that during special events at the winery, there would be an additional 120 to 150 vehicles along Libhart Mill Road.
"Based on what we've found with our review, the volume is low," he said, adding that this estimate is in line with other similarly sized wineries in the area.
Neal was one of three witnesses the Hewitts' attorney, David Jones, brought to the hearing to support the application that's lingered for years.
Noise has been a particular concern for residents living near to the site where the winery would be built. At a previous hearing, neighbors testified they were afraid they'd be able to hear car doors slamming and people talking in the parking lot.
The township's board of supervisors denied the Hewitts' first application in 2018, so the Hewitts appealed. The Court of Common Pleas reversed the board's decision, saying the board didn't have the grounds to deny an application that met all of the zoning requirements.
But the neighbors appealed the court's reversal, sending the matter to Commonwealth Court.
The Commonwealth Court reversed the Common Pleas court decision, but only on the grounds that the Hewitts failed to submit a detailed written plan about how they would address noise complaints.
So the Hewitts submitted a new application to the township, this time with a written plan for dealing with noise complaints.
On Thursday, Thomas Lang, an attorney for the neighbors opposing the project, questioned whether the noise level would be amplified once the winery opened and there was a wedding going on with multiple speakers playing music for hours at a time.
But Christopher Brooks, an architectural sound engineer who worked with the Hewitts at the site of the proposed winery, said his tests, including slamming car doors, resulted in little noise traveling beyond the Hewitts' property line.
To test whether noise levels would fall within the accepted parameters, Brooks placed a speaker on the property where the reception space would be built and blasted music in the open air, then measured the sound level at various points across the property line.
At the edge of the property, the noise level was slightly above the ambient noise level without the music playing, Brooks said, and he pointed out that if the source of noise were contained inside the building, the noise level at the property line would be even lower.
The Hewitts, and the courts, have pointed out that a winery with an associated wedding venue is already a permitted conditional use in the township's rural-agricultural zone and that residents who live in that zone must be prepared to contend with agricultural activities.
"We as township supervisors have to look at this plan as it relates to a normal winery use," said Galen Weibley, board chair.
The hearing will be continued on Nov. 7, when the opponents of the project will present their case and call their own witnesses. Weibley said it was the most detailed conditional use permit application hearing he's seen in the six years he's served on the board.
Lang and his witnesses will have to prove that the Hewitts' winery would fall outside the generally expected parameters for a Winery Type B in the rural-agricultural zone, Weibley said.