Feeling demonized by social media and ignored by Willistown Twp., Wildflower’s neighbors share their side of the story.
by Davis Giangiulio, Contributing Editor
Lonnie Gray wants to make one thing clear: “We are not trying to shut down the Heenans. We just don’t want an event venue in our neighborhood.”
That “event venue” is Wildflower Farm, a 4-acre property that opened in May 2021 on Castlebar Lane in Malvern. Ryan and Lori Heenan billed Wildflower as a flower farm that would host small workshops and classes. But Wildflower’s grand opening event on Mother’s Day of 2021 alarmed neighbors. “We were in shock,” Gray said. “Over 70 cars, 100 people, a pizza truck, and all kinds of stuff. We’re going, ‘Wow this is crazy.’”
It got crazier. According to the Heenans, neighbors interrupted that Mother’s Day event, causing so much commotion that police were called.
From Gray’s point of view, the commotion was caused by the Heenans’ event. She and a few of her neighbors hired attorney Marc D. Jonas at Eastburn and Gray PC to protect their rights as homeowners. “No one is going to want to live next door to that,” she said. “It’s living in a residential area and then having it become something very different.”
The Castlebar Cul-de-Sac
There’s no disputing that Castlebar Lane is a residential street. It’s actually a cul-de-sac, and a quiet one at that. Castlebar is off Providence Road, a long road that winds through sprawling acres of woods and fields dotted with homes that average $1 million. Throughout Willistown Twp., and especially on Castlebar Lane, privacy is a luxury. That’s one of the things that attracted Gray, who purchased her four-bedroom, three-bathroom, 5,000 square foot home in 2013.
Gray’s home is one of five properties on Castlebar. Two others belong to Ryan and Lori Hennan, who purchased them in 2015. One lot holds the Heenan’s home; the other is a farm and its barn. By 2021, the Heenans had renovated that barn, which is separated from Gray’s property by a tree line, and not much else. So, during the Mother’s Day event, Gray could hear and see everything. Not wanting that to happen again, Gray and a few of her neighbors contacted Willistown Twp. to get assurances that, under zoning laws, an “event space” would not be allowed to open on their street.
But Ryan Heenan says that he is not planning to host weddings and other parties at Wildflower. “We are entitled to market our products like anyone else. Sometimes, that includes experiential offerings like a class, or just a free tour of a working farm for kids. That is not creating an ‘event space.’ It is simply marketing in support of direct commercial sales.”
Flower Stand Or Party Venue?
The neighbors simply do not believe him. As proof of Heenan’s intentions, Jonas sent Main Line Tonight a brochure uploaded to an online digital publishing platform in January 2021. While Main Line Tonight cannot verify the exact source of the brochure, it clearly advertises Wildflower as “the perfect place to gather with friends, family or coworkers… perfect for special gatherings,” containing “multiple unique spaces to choose from to fit your event’s needs.”
Jonas also pointed to an advertisement that says Wildflower hosts bridal showers and rehearsal dinners. “This was always intended to be an event venue,” Jonas said.
In a statement provided to Main Line Tonight, Ryan Heenan wrote, “We have never said that we didn’t think about [an event space] or discuss it.” The neighbors’ opposition changed the Heenans’ plans. “So, we did not pursue it.”
“An egregious abuse of power”
Or did they? At a December 13 Board of Supervisors meeting, Willistown Township officials announced that they reached a settlement with the Heenans. That news shocked Gray and her neighbors, who felt left out of the conversation, despite their phone calls and emails seeking information. “The township would never be specific with any of us as to what was allowed,” she said.
Jonas believes that the Heenans reached a backroom, illegal deal with Willistown Township that would allow Wildflower to operate as an event space. “There were private discussions, secret discussions, and no one got to see the settlement agreement until it was voted on and signed,” Jonas said. “It’s an egregious abuse of municipal power.”
Willistown Township solicitor Bill Christman pushed back on that characterization. In a written statement, Christman explained his position. “The interpretation of the zoning ordinance and the determination of whether certain actions violate the ordinance are matters that are solely between a municipality and a property owner.” He went on to say that “the neighbors had no right to participate in those discussions to begin with.”
The neighbors feel otherwise. For starters, the Heenans launched a smartly run social media campaign to defend their rights as a small business. Gray feels that the Heenans demonized the neighbors’ actions and motivations. “We’ve been continually misrepresented,” Gray said. “We’ve tried to conduct ourselves in a civilized manner.”
On their behalf, Jonas is pursuing three legal avenues against Willistown Township and Wildflower. One is their contention that the settlement agreement illegally expanded the zoning ordinance. Section 139-12 of the Willistown zoning code says no-impact home businesses are allowed if they follow specific guidelines and 50% of products sold are made on the property. The settlement adds that, if Wildflower follows those guidelines, it may provide tours, workshops and demonstrations but cannot charge for them.
That extra line isn’t defined in the law, leading Jonas to believe it was an illegal expansion of the zoning ordinance. In his response, Christman wrote that the settlement is the “township’s interpretation of the ordinance as it applies to all properties within the same zoning district.”
Meanwhile, Jonas’ arguments are aimed at making the entire settlement invalid. A 1955 Pennsylvania Supreme Court opinion states that “contracts thus have no place in a zoning plan and a contract between a municipality and a property owner should not enter into the enactment or enforcement of zoning regulations.”
The settlement was illegal, Jonas said. “Settlement agreements are encouraged in court proceedings. There was no court proceeding here. A settlement agreement has to be in front of somebody or a court who has the power to enforce a settlement agreement.”
Jonas also argues that the rules don’t apply to Wildflower because the farm is on 8 Castlebar Lane, while the Heenans’ home is on 6 Castlebar Lane. Therefore, Jonas claims, the farm and its business are the primary use of 8 Castlebar Lane. “That makes a difference in zoning,” he said. “You can’t treat these two lots together.”
That appears to be the situation. The Heenans took to social media to announce their request that the township change the zoning ordinance that they believe neighbors are misusing. If that does not occur, the Heenans will request the township “rezone to low density residential so that this battle does not needlessly drag on, and so that our family can pursue this dream elsewhere.”
Jonas claims to want an agreement but says that Willistown Township has not advanced efforts to create a dialogue between his clients, the township and the Heenans. “This is categorically false,” Christman stated. “The township has made many, many attempts at bringing both parties together to reach a resolution.”
“Our attorneys exchanged settlement terms with the neighbors’ attorneys as recently as three weeks ago,” Heenan said. “The Township has offered to arrange a meeting which we would be happy to participate in.”
Reaching a settlement will be difficult. Meanwhile, a recent trip to Castlebar Lane found the cul-de-sac absolutely quiet, except for the muted sounds of bird calls that herald the start of spring. The neighbor who lives opposite Wildflower strolled down her long driveway to collect her mail. “I don’t want to get involved,” she stated when asked about her position on Wildflower. “The entire situation makes me sad.”
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