EDITORIAL: Hellam Township should stop fighting lawful use of a property
Landowners, generally, can do what they want on their property.
There are rules, of course. Municipalities have zoning rules. There are rules about upkeep. Homeowners associations have rules about all kinds of things.
But it's one of the bedrock ideas in our country that landowners, if they follow the rules, can decide for themselves the best use of their property.
For two years, Bill and Wendy Hewitt have been fighting with Hellam Township about a property they want to buy.
The Hewitts want to transform the 10.6-acre site at 4865 Libhart Mill Road into a vineyard, winery and wedding venue.
In late 2017, they submitted a conditional use application to the township. The board of supervisors denied it. The Hewitts appealed to the Court of Commons Pleas, which in 2018 reversed the supervisors' decision, saying the board didn't have the grounds to deny an application that met all of the zoning requirements.
Nearby property owners appealed the reversal, sending the matter to Commonwealth Court.
The Commonwealth Court reversed the Common Pleas court decision, but only because 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.
And yet the potential neighbors to this winery and wedding venue continue to fight the conditional use application.
On Thursday, Nov. 7, the opponents, led by attorney Thomas Lang, were to present their case to the board of supervisors again.
The main contention seems to be that the sound of car doors and people talking on the grounds would be disruptive.
This is a property with an English Tudor-style farmhouse from the 19th century as its centerpiece. The Hewitts are buying it from the estate of Evamae Crist, whose son, Johnny Crist, is the executor. Johnny Crist says he had considered turning the property into a winery and wedding venue himself, but he now lives in Lilburn, Georgia, where he is the mayor.
Bill Hewitt wants to keep the house and other buildings intact while adding a carriage house reception hall and a vineyard.
"We want to maintain and restore it to keep its original charm," he said.
The Hewitts hired a sound engineer to test noise levels at the perimeter of the property, and while amplified music was slightly above the ambient noise, that was when the speaker was in open air, not contained within a building.
The neighbors seem to want to keep everything the way it is (none of them would talk to reporter Lindsey O'Laughlin, so that's conjecture). But that's not how the world works, unless they want to spend the money to buy the property themselves.
"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."
Exactly. The board of supervisors needs to allow this conditional use of the property, without any more delays.