Divided board in Hellam Twp. OKs controversial winery
A proposed winery and wedding venue on Libhart Mill Road in Hellam Township got the OK Thursday night from the board of supervisors.
After a lengthy hearing and nearly an hour of deliberations, township supervisors voted 3-2 to approve the conditional-use application submitted by Bill and Wendy Hewitt of Springettsbury Township.
Board Chairman Galen Weibley, Vice Chairman Phil Smith and Supervisor Dave Cox voted in favor of the application. Supervisors Todd Trimmer and Mark Myers voted against it.
"We need to change our laws in order to reject this, and we can’t reject it because the laws haven’t changed," Smith said. "Unfortunately, it’s Not-In-My-Backyard syndrome."
One attempt to change the laws is in the works.
The supervisors are looking into establishing a conservation zone covering a wide swathe of the southern part of the township, including Owl Valley, to prevent future development.
Myers urged his fellow supervisors to deny the application if any of the opposition's arguments seemed valid because the forthcoming conservation zone could prevent the winery from going through at a later date.
Objections to applications that meet the township's zoning requirements are one reason the board is looking into changing the zoning with a conservation district, Weibley said.
"However, the law is the law," he said. "We have to look at this application as it is currently, with our current zoning."
The Hewitts followed the law and met the requirements of the township's zoning ordinance, Smith said.
Thursday's vote was the culmination of a two-year legal battle over the proposed winery and event center at 4865 Libhart Mill Road in a neighborhood known colloquially as Owl Valley.
"They got it right, and we’re just thankful that we’re able to move forward," said Bill Hewitt on Friday.
Neighbors have blasted the plan and pressured the board to spike it over concerns about traffic, noise and degradation of the area's historical value.
According to the ordinance, Weibley said, the supervisors needed to determine whether the impact of the winery would be greater and more harmful to the surrounding area than what would normally arise from a comparable winery.
The question was not whether there would be any impact at all, he said.
"You’re going to have an impact no matter what goes in anywhere," Smith said.
There was standing room only at the meeting.
Thomas Lang, a neighbor on Libhart Mill Road and the attorney representing the other neighbors who oppose the plan, brought two witnesses Thursday.
The first was Dr. Adrienne Johnson, a family practice physician who lives across the street from the site of the proposed winery and who is against the plan.
Lang introduced her as an expert medical witness to testify that noise from the winery and wedding venue would be detrimental to the health and well-being of neighbors, based on articles from medical journals.
David Jones, the Hewitts' attorney, poked holes in the medical studies Johnson cited, pointing out that several of them were conducted in urban areas and high-population cities such as Hong Kong and that they dealt specifically with the impact of noise levels on people who already had cardiovascular disease.
Lang asked her to testify about the validity of a sound study presented by Jones at an Oct. 3 hearing.
In that study, Christopher Brooks, an architectural sound engineer contracted by the Hewitts, placed a large speaker facing upward in the center of the area where the Hewitts plan to build a carriage house for receptions.
Brooks testified the noise level from the open-air speaker, measured at the property line, was slightly above the ambient noise level without the music playing and that if the source of noise were contained inside the proposed building, the noise level would be even lower.
But at Thursday's hearing, Johnson testified that Brooks' sound study needed to be corrected because the speaker was facing the wrong direction and that if the speaker hadn't been facing upward, the decibel-level recorded at the property line would have been higher.
She also said that putting a building around the noise source would only decrease the sound levels by two decibels.
During cross examination, Jones asked Johnson about her training in sound studies.
"I have no training in sound studies," she said.
Lang's second witness, Michael Nazmack, is a civil engineer and another neighbor on Libhart Mill Road opposing the plan.
Nazmack testified that the noise and traffic generated by the winery would make it difficult for neighbors to sell their homes and would decrease property values.
Jones pointed out to Nazmack during cross examination that the proposed winery and event center would be a permitted conditional use in the township's rural agricultural zone, and he listed several other permitted uses that could be proposed instead of the winery, including intensive animal operations, airports, sawmills, outdoor shooting ranges and stockyards.
Jones asked Nazmack how property values would be impacted by any of those uses.
"That would really decrease the value," Nazmack said.
Based on the permitted uses he listed, Jones asked Nazmack whether it appeared the board of supervisors had already accepted some level of additional noise and traffic in the rural agricultural zone and, by extension, in Owl Valley.
"Yes, it does," Nazmack said.
In the parking lot after the vote, Lang congratulated Jones and said he'd see him at the appeal.