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Source: Springfield Sun
Date: April 22, 2001
Byline: Chris Lilienthal

Black Horse Village zoning hearings close

A decision on the variance request is expected May 21. The proposed development plan calls for the demolition of the Black Horse Tavern.

After five hearings, the application of the Hampton Real Estate Group on the proposed Black Horse Village development is now in the hands of the Springfield Township Zoning Board, which is expected to announce a decision May 21.

The hearings, which began in October, concluded April 16 with closing arguments from Neil Stein, Hampton's attorney, and Joseph Bagley, the solicitor representing the township in opposition to the application.

Three young township residents also presented public comment at the hearing. All other public comment was closed in March, but due to the lateness of that hearing, the zoning board permitted the young ladies to make comment at the start of Monday's hearing.

"A building in your township has a great treasure from our nation's past and is about to be knocked down so you can build a CVS ... and plenty of parking," said Hannah Ellis, 11, a fifth-grader at Springfield Township Middle School.

Along with her friend Jessica Peirce, 11, and her sister Cathryn Peirce, 7, Ellis asked the zoning board to spare the Black Horse from demolition. Ellis said the township did not need a new CVS because the one currently in Chesney Commons, next to the Flourtown Farmer's Market, "is in a suitable place right now."

She also pointed to the architecture of Bethlehem Pike as a reason for not razing the inn and developing the tract.

"If you give [Hampton's application] approval, please make sure that how they're going to construct the stores and pharmacy is going to look nice and that it is going to look like the same architecture of Bethlehem Pike," Ellis said.

"Please don't knock down the Black Horse Inn," added Cathryn Peirce, a first-grader at Erdenheim Elementary.

Hampton is seeking zoning relief to allow the unified development of three retail structures on the Black Horse tract and its neighboring property, which are 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.

In his closing arguments before the board, Stein said the zoning code does not determine what the proposed use of the buildings would be, for it is the constitutional right of the owner to develop the property as he likes, according to proper zoning.

"What this board must decide is if this property, being split-zoned, is entitled to relief by variance," Stein said, "and if it is, what that relief is."

Stein said it was unfortunate there had not been more dialogue between Hampton and the interested parties, such as the historical societies and township. He called for the interested parties to put to productive use the interim time, during which the zoning board will deliberate on the application.

"Now is the time to come forth, and by now I mean the next 45 days, to make suggestions known to all concerned," Stein said, referring to the maximum time by law the board may deliberate.

In his closing statement, Bagley made the case that Hampton's argument of zoning hardship boiled down to one thing — the split zoning of the tract as commercial in the front and residential in the rear.

"Split zoning is not the type of circumstance the Pennsylvania Municipal Code provides for the basis of the issuance of a variance," Bagley said.

He cited a case from the 1980s in Springfield, in which a claim of hardship for split zoning was denied by the zoning board, a decision that was subsequently held up in the Montgomery County Court of Appeals and Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.

Even if a hardship does exist, Bagley said, Pennsylvania Municipal Planning Code allows for the "minimal variance necessary" to offset the hardship.

"In fact, [Hampton has] sought the opposite," Bagley said. "They have sought the maximum variance necessary. ...

"It is the classic case of a person trying to put 10 pounds of sugar into a five pound bag."

Zoning Board Chairman Daniel Clifford said the board would announce a decision at its regular May meeting. In the meantime, the Springfield Township Historical Society is hoping to begin a dialogue with the developers and the community.

T. Scott Kreilick, an architectural conservator and metallurgist from Oreland, is heading the historical society's committee to address the Black Horse issue. He helped initiate the effort because he felt the society "should be more proactive" on the issue.

In addition to meeting with Hampton, the committee hopes to converse with township officials and residents.

"It's a process of education at this point," Kreilick said. "We need to make sure the public is aware of this discussion."