Hellam's 2-year winery battle nears closing act
Bill Hewitt has big plans for the English Tudor farmhouse that sits just east of Kreutz Creek on Libhart Mill Road in Hellam Township.
Hewitt and his wife, Wendy, who live in Springettsbury Township, intend to open a vineyard, winery and wedding venue at the site.
"We want to maintain and restore it to keep its original charm," he said.
But for the past two years, nearby property owners have blasted the plan and pressured the board to spike it, even though it meets all of the zoning requirements.
On Nov. 7, the opponents will present their case to the Hellam Township Board of Supervisors as to why the winery should not be allowed.
The Hewitts are buying the house and adjacent 10.6 acres of farmland at 4865 Libhart Mill Rd. from the estate of the late Evamae Crist, whose son, Johnny Crist, is the executor.
During a walk-through at the property in early October, Hewitt pointed out the meadow that would be home to a new carriage house reception hall for weddings and special events, and an area beyond that where he intends to plant the vineyard.
The house would be used as a wine-tasting area for visitors to the winery, he said.
Crist said he was surprised by the pushback from neighbors.
Noise has been a particular concern for residents living near the site where the winery would be built. At past hearings, neighbors testified they were afraid they'd be able to hear car doors slamming and people talking in the parking lot.
"I’m not going to argue with anybody’s feelings about that, but it feels like it’s a gift that the house won’t deteriorate and the barns won’t deteriorate," Crist said. "They’ll continue to rise in value because of the incredible sense of investment that’s being poured in."
The original part of the house was built sometime in the early to mid-19th century, Crist said. Later additions were added, and before the Crist family moved there in the 1950s, the previous owners had updated the exterior in the English Tudor style.
Before the Hewitts approached him about the property, Crist himself was considering planting a vineyard and opening a wedding venue, he said.
Across the street and along Libhart Mill Road, there are yard signs that read "No Event Center! No Winery!"
Several neighbors either declined to comment or did not return requests for comment.
The battle over the property began in late 2017 when the Hewitts submitted their first conditional use application to the township.
The board of supervisors denied the 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.
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.
Crist grew up in the house on Libhart Mill Road, but he moved to Georgia in the 1980s and now serves as the mayor of Lilburn, a small city outside Atlanta.
He said he's very familiar with zoning ordinances and with the community outcry that often accompanies development.
"I live in this world of having people not like what is happening around us, but you can’t discriminate based on 'This is the way it’s always been,'" Crist said. "The question is, what do our local ordinances allow in this zoning? And if it’s allowable, it’s allowable."
Thomas Lang, a neighbor on Libhart Mill Road and the attorney representing the other neighbors who oppose the plan, will argue his case at a continued conditional use hearing at the Hellam Township Board of Supervisors meeting Thursday, Nov. 7.
Hewitt and his attorney presented their case in the first part of the hearing on Oct. 4.