Why did this Malvern flower farm cause so much controversy?
by Davis Giangiulio, contributing editor
Back in 2015, soon-to-be-married couple Ryan and Lori Heenan thought they were living the American dream – or the Main Line version of it. Together, they bought a property on Castlebar Lane in Malvern. Less than one mile from the legendary Radnor Hunt and the exclusive White Manor Country Club, Castlebar is lined with homes that average $1 million, each sitting on several acres of well loved, carefully landscaped land.
But the Heenans’ property was not in impeccable shape. Its 4 acres included a standard home and a large barn, but the latter was run-down and uninhabitable. Their plan was to turn the dilapidated barn into a new home. Slowly, that idea faded away. “We thought people would want to want to kill us if we tore down the barn or converted it into a house,” Ryan Heenan said. “So we thought we’d figure out a way to keep the barn.”
Preserving barns is important in this part of Chester County’s Willistown Township, and in many other parts of the US. But this particular barn soon made the Heenans’ property “the world’s most controversial flower farm,” as Ryan described it.
Initially, the goal was just to get the barn back into shape. That meant repairing holes, giving it a new coat of paint and making it presentable. By 2016, it was ready to host the Heenans’ wedding. Over the next few years, the Heenans used the space to host other events by and for their family.
In 2019, wanting to use the barn more, the Heenans decided to create a flower farm. Construction on Widlflower Farm began in 2020. In January 2021, the Heenans ran into their first problem. “A neighbor called the township to say that we were trying to start a wedding venue. That was not at all the case,” said Ryan.
What were the Heenans’ intentions? It’s tough to say for sure, but the barn’s gorgeously restored two floors seem tailor made for bridal showers, birthday parties and other gatherings. With the addition of tents, the farm could certainly host small weddings – or so it seemed to neighbors. One thing is for sure: Neighbors do not want a party venue on Castlebar Lane.
Bill Christman, solicitor for Willistown Township, said that the Heenans were contacted after the complaint was filed. “We had some conversations with the property owner. We explained, ‘Here’s what’s permitted under the zoning ordinance, and we’re not sure some of that stuff would be permitted.’”
Heenan was disappointed by the decision but accepted that Wildflower would not be able to have rentals or sales that were privately booked in advance. So, when planning for Wildflower’s opening on Mother’s Day 2021, the Heenans made sure it was not a ticketed event. Anyone could come; no registration was required. There’d be food, pictures, mimosas for moms, and hopefully lots of flower purchases. To make sure all of this could move forward, Heenan requested a written statement from the zoning officer stating that Wildflower would be abiding by the township’s regulations.
Two months before the event, the opinion was delivered. It said that “events within the barn are limited to the sale of farm or other products of which more than 50% of such processed or merchandised products are produced on the property.” So long as the Heenans followed those regulations, it seemed like Wildflower was good to go.
The Mother’s Day opening was a success, but the Heenans got a taste of the controversy to come. One frustrated neighbor caused a disruption at the event. The police were called and the neighbor was removed from the property. A zoning officer was in attendance and witnessed the incident. Heenan said that the officer advised the neighbor that nothing illegal was happening.
Five days later, everything changed. The Heenans received an enforcement notice from Willistown Township. It read: “It appears as though the commercial use of the Property has exceeded that allowable as an ‘accessory use’ under the Zoning Ordinance and is, instead, the principal use of the Property.”
The Heenans were shocked. They saw it as a violation of Pennsylvania’s Right to Farm Act regulations, specifically one that reads, “every municipality shall encourage the continuity, development, and viability of agricultural operations within its jurisdiction… so long as the agricultural operation does not have a direct adverse effect on public health and safety.”
Furthermore, the Heenans had what they thought was written permission. And, the zoning officer who attended the Mother’s Day event did not tell them that they were outside the boundaries of the law.
Christman, the township’s solicitor, explained it from his point of view. “At the event, the zoning officer’s role was not to say, ‘You need to stop this right now,’” said Christman. “The planning code has very specific procedures about how you are supposed to proceed for those types of actions.”
Zoning codes may be a snooze for many people, but they are the regulations that dictate life in small towns and big cities. Property owners certainly have rights, and the minutia of zoning ordinances are meant to protect them. In this case, all of the parties are property owners. So who does the law protect: Wildflower Farm or home owners who lived on Castlebar Lane long before the Heenans arrived?
At question is section 139-12 of the Willistown zoning code concerning “RU Rural Districts.” Laid out in that section are the allowable uses of buildings on RU properties. They’re separated into two sections: principal use and accessory use.
Principal uses include a single-family detached dwelling, farm use, and more. Accessory uses are described as “customarily incidental to the principal use” on property. A listed accessory use is sales of farm products, so long as the previously mentioned 50% rule is followed. The township believed Wildflower’s Mother’s Day event went beyond accessory use.
Ryan Heenan was baffled. In his view, the zoning opinion letter did not deny his request to hold “events or sales specifically related to the marketing of farm products,” like the Mother’s Day event. And Ryan said that the township failed to inform him that Wildflower’s business was illegal according to the zoning ordinance.
Asked to explain what seems like a discrepancy, Christman clarified that zoning opinion letters aren’t necessarily legal documents granting rights to property owners. “The zoning opinion is what is called a preliminary opinion under the municipality’s planning code,” he said. “It doesn’t give a property owner a right to do what they want on the property.”
The Heenans didn’t understand that. They read it as permitting them to go ahead with their plans. So, did the Heenans interpret the document incorrectly, or did the zoning officer deliver an opinion not in line with the zoning ordinance?
“We do believe the opinion that was provided by the zoning officer complied with our ordinance,” said Christman. “Ultimately there was a difference of interpretation and there was enforcement action taken.”
Heenan wants to know how things changed so quickly. He thinks an unnamed neighbor who sits on the planning commission pushed the township to take action. “I think it’s telling that the township felt sales and workshops fell within the allowable uses of those ordinances. Then after somebody from the planning commission – who happens to live on this street – got involved, suddenly the township doesn’t feel that way anymore.”
Christman did not comment on the planning commission member specifically but did say neighbors played a role in enforcing this case. “The township doesn’t want to enforce against its residents,” he said. “If we get a complaint, then we will investigate. I’m not exactly sure how many complaints there were, but I know it was multiple.”
Willistown Township Planning Commission Chair Cathy Rubenstone defended actions of the commission in a statement to Main Line Tonight. “All of the reviews and recommendations are dedicated to supporting and protecting the natural environment of the township.”
After the zoning opinion was issued, neighbors appealed it. They were dismissed by the township because the opinion was not a decision of the zoning officer. Still, to the Heenans, it is proof of neighbors taking action to end Wildflower Farm’s existence – legally and financially. “They’re trying every avenue humanly possible to make our lives miserable,” said Ryan. “I’m not sure if they really believe that their legal pursuits are winnable, but they know it will be expensive. They’re trying to disrupt the viability of our operation.”
The situation got even uglier when the Heenans received hate mail. One envelope was addressed to the “horrible Heenans.” Ryan claims that neighbors have trespassed on their property, some taking pictures and recording video. Ryan put it simply: “It’s just nuts.”
The matter was supposed to come to a head at a December 15 zoning board hearing. The Heenans posted on social media about the hearing, trying to rally support. Presumably, neighbors did the same among themselves.
But the hearing never happened; the Heenans and Willistown Township reached a settlement that was announced at a December 13 board of supervisors meeting. Four Castlebar Lane home owners attended that meeting and asked pointed questions. One property owner inquired about construction done on the Heenans’ property without a building permit. Christman said that was a separate issue outside of the settlement, as was the situation around a stormwater violation appeal.
Details of this particular settlement are thus: The township retracted Wildflower’s violations and placed a cap on the number of cars allowed on the property. Wildflower’s barn was deemed non-rentable. However, the township did allow sales to continue on property as long as the 50% rule is met. Also permitted: “tours, workshops, and/or demonstrations in conjunction with the accessory farm stand use,” as long as there is no charge for said services.
How Wildflower Farm will turn a profit is unclear – and not the township’s problem. While Willistown Township seems to have settled matters with the Heenans, Ryan said that the neighbors have not given up their fight to close Wildflower. According to Ryan, neighbors are suing him, the zoning hearing board, and Willistown Township board of supervisors. Their goal, Ryan said, is to overturn the settlement.
Flower farms in other areas have been paying close attention to this situation – but from a distance. No one wants to pick a fight with neighbors or fight zoning battles. Multiple flower farms contacted about Wildflower declined to comment on the record.
Heenan wants to make sure no one has to go through what he did. “I don’t think you should have to pay tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees just to start a farm in a legal district,” he said. “If nothing else, it’s our hope that this will help pave the way for other small farms to operate without harassment in the future.”
And what about the neighbor’s rights? How can they be sure that a potentially noisy, traffic-causing business won’t open on their street? And if one did, how many neighbors would need to speak up to cause zoning officials to get involved? “I can’t give a blanket answer because instances are very fact-specific and it’s very tough to say when the township would take action,” said Christman.
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