Zoning board grants variance for UHS

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Board splits vote 3-2, but ends months long dispute over building height

By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com

The East Marlborough Zoning Hearing Board approved a variance to permit the permanent occupancy of the new Unionville High School auditorium.

EAST MARLBOROUGH —To paraphrase the late Harry Kalas: “Swing and a drive…this issue is outta here.”

The township’s Zoning Hearing Board voted 3-2 Tuesday night to issue a variance for the new auditorium for Unionville High School, which at a height of 58 feet was allegedly in violation of local zoning. The variance paves the way for a permanent certificate of occupancy and the end of a long dispute over the building.

Tuesday night’s vote ended a saga that lasted longer than most Fox TV network shows, starting with angry charges and counter-charges in May from the township and the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District, multiple continuances of a zoning hearing, an August deal between the township and finally, a split vote by the zoning hearing board, when the school district was unable to provide letters from local fire companies about their ability to fight fires at the structure.

Although the saga was lengthy, Tuesday’s night hearing lasted less than five minutes — ending minutes before some of the schools administration arrived.

“I think we did the right thing,” ZBH chair Thomas Simpers said about getting the issue done with once and for all. Simpers, Gerry Hoover and Steve Davison voted for the measure, while vice chair Dick Pratt and John Laffey, voted no.

The approval comes with four conditions: no additional signs, no additional lighting for the auditorium, the schools and township must work on a landscape plan jointly to minimize the visual impact of the 58-foot-high building for neighbors, and the two parties must work together to evaluate the needs of local fire companies to provide adequate fire protection for the structure.

The Aug. 1 hearing continuation was again halted and resumed Tuesday after the school district could not provide certification from local fire companies — in this case Longwood Fire Company and neighboring Kennett Fire Company — that they had the equipment and mutual aid agreements in place to deal with any issues with the new structure. Kennett already has equipment to handle some of the larger building in Kennett Square, such as the five-story Franklin Center, so getting the letter was part of a process to get everything in writing.

But again, as in August, the letters were not forthcoming, although, the district did seek to get them and were rebuffed by the fire companies, who reportedly said they could only issue such letters to the municipalities involved.

Laffey had been the most outspoken critic of issuing the variance, citing concerns over the ability of local fire companies to cope with the height and size of the new auditorium. He left the five-minute hearing virtually immediately after it concluded and could not be reached for comment.

Pratt, though, expressed some frustration at the various finger pointing between the school district and the township, in terms of who had to get confirmation from the fire companies — and while he understood the need to dispose of the issue once and for all, and it was clear that no major changes were going to be made to the building, now already in use under provisional certificate of occupancy, he said he felt that still after the entire process, the question of fire safety remains unanswered, at least formally.

Simpers, though, said he wasn’t thrilled with the process, but would be glad to getting back to more mundane issues, such as granting variances on set backs for swimming pools and such — the more typical actions of the zoning hearing board. He allowed while it was a very complicated issue, and certainly one that earned local TV news times, it wasn’t the most complicated one. That, he noted, involved the King’s Island Restaurant in Longwood some years back and concerns about odors from the establishment, which resulted in many expert hearings and a lot of complicated data.

The original dispute centered around whether the building’s height caused it to violate the township’s zoning ordinance. Township officials argued that a 38-foot height limit is required, while school officials argued that the ordinance limits buildings to either 38 feet or three stories, but doesn’t specify the lower of those two as the limit.

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