Date: March 17, 2001
Byline: Chris Lilienthal
Testimony completed in tavern hearingsAbout 75 residents packed the township building March 8 for the fourth installment of the hearings. The next meeting concerning the Black Horse will be April 16.
With testimony completed and nearly all public comments heard, the Black Horse zoning hearings are approaching a finale, but Springfield residents still have another month of suspense until the hearings continue and presumably conclude.
The Black Horse hearings have been ongoing since October when the Hampton Real Estate Group brought a proposal before the township zoners for the unified development of the Black Horse tract and a neighboring property.
Hampton is seeking zoning relief to allow the development of three retail structures on the unified property, which is split-zoned as residential and commercial. This would include razing the 280-year-old inn and constructing a CVS; relocating a liquor store on the neighboring tract to a larger facility at the rear of the property; and converting the current liquor store into another retail establishment.
More than 75 area residents packed the township building March 8 for the fourth installment of the hearings. Walter C. Evans, a land planner called by the township, continued his testimony, followed by James T. Macallister, Hampton's architect, who presented testimony on a slightly revised plan for the Black Horse Village retail center.
Residents also had the opportunity to express concerns of congestion, traffic, noise and safety during a public comment period. Several also voiced their opposition to razing the Black Horse Inn, citing its importance to the heritage of the township.
Hearings will continue April 16 at 7:30 p.m. Three young ladies will have an opportunity at that hearing to present their position on the subject. They were unable to do so Thursday, as Chairman Daniel Clifford explained, "because it was past their bedtime and they had to leave." All other public comment is closed.
The April hearing will also feature closing arguments from Hampton attorney Neil Stein and Solicitor Joseph Bagley, who is representing the township in opposition to the application.
In the meantime, the zoning board plans to tour the Black Horse Inn before making a final decision.
Walter C. Evans, the land planner from Lafayette Hill, began his testimony at a January hearing with seven sketch plans depicting what he called "viable" residential developments on the residential portion of the Black Horse property.
In his cross-examination of Evans last Thursday, Stein questioned the "economic viability" of these alternative sketch plans, calling them "academic pursuits of what could fit on the site."
Evans said he would consider them part of a "feasibility study" of what could fit on the property based on zoning.
"Viability then does not mean economic viability?" Stein asked Evans.
"That is correct," Evans said.
Following Evans' testimony, James T. Macallister, Hampton's architect who previously testified on the project specifics of the Black Horse Village, presented a revision to the land development plan.
The primary change is a reconfiguration of the proposed LCB liquor store to the rear of the property. The square footage of the building would remain the same, but the dimensions would be slightly different. This would create an increase of about 65 feet on one side yard "to take into consideration existing structures," Macallister said. The dimensions of the proposed recreation area behind the liquor store would remain the same.
The revised plan also changes the designation of a proposed structure along Bethlehem Pike, where the LCB liquor store now stands. Hampton had proposed a Manayunk/Roxborough Bank in this location, with a drive-thru window. The revised plans change the designation from bank to retail structure, eliminating the drive-thru.
"I believe either a bank or a retail structure would be allowed in the zoning district," Macallister said.
"The [Black Horse] Inn is the oldest building in Springfield. It was built before there was a United States built even before our Declaration of Independence," said John Roberts, vice president of the Springfield Township Historical Society.
During public testimony, Roberts urged the zoning board to deny Hampton's application in order to preserve the history of the inn and protect area residents from commercial overdevelopment.
Other area residents chimed in with concerns of declining property values and the safety of children in a recreation area planned for the rear of the proposed liquor store. Several warned against turning Bethlehem Pike into a "strip mall," with increased traffic, congestion and noise.
"We are being bombarded on every side on Bethlehem Pike with development," said Mary Lou Hughes of Gordon Lane in Erdenheim.
Some former Philadelphia residents who recently moved to the township voiced dismay at what they thought the Black Horse Village would do to the Flourtown-Erdenheim area.
"There's still some charm left in this community, and I think we need to treasure that and hold onto that," said Ellen DeGuida of Wissahickon Avenue, a two-year resident of Flourtown.
Other residents talked about the importance of preserving the inn; some even expressed their willingness to raise money to see it preserved.
Vinnie Salatino of Sunnybrook Road in Flourtown said he believed township residents would be willing to see their taxes raised in order for the township to purchase the inn and preserve it.
Said Roberts: "Our late historical society director, Marie Kitto, thoroughly researched the history of the inn, and in 1989, the United States Department of the Interior informed the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission that the inn was eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Since such inclusion offers some benefits, but also some limitations on what can be done to an historic building, the owner must agree to its inclusion in the National Register. The owner [at the time] refused."
Connecting its history with quality of life along Bethlehem Pike, Roberts said development of the Black Horse into a retail center could set a dangerous precedent for the corridor and its residents.
"Grant these variances and exceptions and you offer an invitation for more problems," he said.