YARDLEY BOROUGH >> The owners of the Vault will face opposition from the borough when it goes before the zoning hearing board later this month seeking a variance to expand its kitchen use to include a barbecue smoker at its Taproom on West College Avenue.
In a 4 to 3 vote, Yardley Borough Council voted to send its solicitor to oppose the zoning relief at the May 24 zoning board meeting. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. inside the Yardley Community Centre.
Voting to oppose the relief were Council President David Bria and council members Caroline Thompson, Kim Segal-Morris and Matt Ross. Voting not to oppose were Uri Feiner, Matt Curtin and John McCann.
The Vault Taproom opened its doors in 2019 at the Tannery, a former industrial site converted into office use on West College Avenue, after securing approval to operate a brewery and a 40 seat tasting room as an accessory use.
The use allows the Taproom to produce and bottle beer and to offer public tastings at the site, which is zoned light industrial. It also allows food to be brought in from other locations, but does not allow it to be made on site.
The Vault is seeking a variance to expand the kitchen use to include a barbecue smoker at the Taproom, which is not permitted under the accessory use.
“We’re not asking for more seats. We’re not asking for outdoor seating. We’re not asking to change our hours. All we want to do is put a barbecue smoker in so we can smoke meat for barbecue,” said Jim Cain, the operations partner for the Vault.
At the heart of the issue is the Taproom’s location, which is not zoned for restaurant use and is bordered by residential neighborhoods along South Main Street, West College Avenue and Van Horn. The Taproom has also been generating an increasing number of complaints from neighbors over music emanating from the site and an increase in crowd size.
In opposing the motion, Feiner questioned procedure, asking why the borough needed to intervene by sending its solicitor to the hearing when residents will already be there opposing the relief.
“I’m not sure why we are opposing and why we are taking a position. I want to be careful that we don’t put the cart before the horse and invest in time for the solicitor to be there,” he said. “A decision will be made whether a variance makes sense or not. Why does the solicitor need to be there?”
Under state law, municipalities in Pennsylvania have the option to support, oppose or take no action on zoning appeals. While many municipalities routinely weigh in on appeals, in Yardley Borough it has been rare.
“If they are not following what they agreed to, we need to address that. That needs to happen. The law is the law,” said Feiner. “But to not allow a kitchen because they are not following the rules is a different thing. And I don’t know if a kitchen is good or not. That’s what zoning does. Why don’t we put our energy towards code enforcement and making sure that all of what they are supposed to be doing, they are doing?”
Curtin agreed with Feiner, adding that without additional information, he felt uncomfortable with the idea of sending the solicitor to oppose the appeal.
“I’m not in a position to say I’m in favor or against this,” he said. “Personally I would need to learn a lot more. I would be in favor of sending the solicitor, but not as an advocate for either side until I get more information and more perspective from residents.”
McCann echoed the remarks of Feiner and Curtin. “I would need more information to vote on this,” he said.
“Unfortunately we don’t have the benefit of time to do homework here,” responded councilwoman Caroline Thompson. “The decision is going to be made and if it’s approved the expansion to the kitchen will occur. If we believe that it is in the best interest of the borough or if we are upholding our ordinances by limiting growth in that area which is zoned within a residential district, according to our ordinances we need to oppose.
“The Taproom has taken many liberties with size of crowds, with noise violations, with making food on site, this is taking it further,” continued Thompson. “And we have avenues for this like special event permits so our residents are not kept awake at night. They have to be during certain hours and with proper approvals.
“The ordinance exists because we don’t want growth in this district of a restaurant,” added Thompson. “We can assume that when they are preparing on site - greater quantities, a larger menu - that larger crowds will follow.”
“But why would the zoning board approve a variance if it’s in gross conflict with the borough ordinances and there’s opposition in the community?” asked Feiner. “Isn’t that the purpose of the zoning board?”
“I don’t want to speak for the zoning hearing board, but we’ve seen unexpected decisions before,” responded Bria. “In best practice, if we have a position we should take it and represent that ... We have these zoning ordinances. And what are they for if every time someone asks for an exception we give it to them?”
Segal-Morris added, “Residents have a right to expect peace and quiet and not to have that encroached upon by a change in the zoning.”
Ross agreed. “The real issue here are the unintended consequences of precedent. It’s not zoned to be a restaurant ... Per the code, it’s not allowed so I think the borough’s position should be that we support that it’s not allowed.”
Cain, who was not aware the zoning appeal was going to be discussed at the meeting and was not in attendance, defended his business. He said he has sent letters to neighboring residents informing them that the tent is coming down and Taproom patrons and music will be moving inside.
“I could probably keep the tent up longer, but that’s not the contract I made with the neighbors,” he said.
He expressed regret that he had not obtained a special event permit from the borough for his reopening event, which drew some complaints from residents over noise and a large turn out of people.
“We had a band and I didn’t think it would bother the neighborhood but a lot more people came out than what we thought. I should have asked for a permit. I honestly didn’t think to do that. Our thought was to have an afternoon concert. It’s a nice day and everyone would have fun. And people did. It was a good community event. But that was on me. I totally made a mistake,” admitted Cain.
With that said, Cain said to date he hasn’t received any notification from the borough, a code officer or from council that he has been doing anything wrong.
Cain expressed disappointment that he wasn’t invited to the recent council meeting to explain the request for zoning relief and how they are accommodating neighbors.
“I was unaware they were going to be talking about it,” said Cain. “There are at least six neighbors who are adjacent to the Taproom who are looking forward to us putting barbecue in up there. All I want to do is serve barbecue.”
The variance request has stirred up opposition from the residential neighborhoods that border the Tannery property, spurred on by the recent reopening party.
“It’s far from a tasting room. It’s a bar with food and I don’t think that’s appropriate,” said Louisa Flaningam, of the 100 block of South Main. “We were up there recently and it was filled with people. There was a band playing really loud out in the parking lot in the middle of a community. I just don’t think that’s appropriate.
“Variances usually come from a hardship and I don’t see what hardship he has,” she continued. “He has two wonderful businesses in Yardley ... This is just pushing too much to turn that area into something this community is going to be very unhappy with in the future.”
West College Avenue resident Dawn Perlmutter added that it’s not just an issue of food and adding a kitchen.
“They have been running a nightclub and a comedy club since they opened,” she said. “They are not zoned for that. They have on their website bands scheduled for the whole summer. They have comedy nights scheduled. None of that’s allowed. It has been a huge disruption.”
South Main Street resident Gail Posey added her opposition to the variance request.
“It’s zoned light industrial, which does not include restaurants of any kind,” she said. “I don’t understand why we have ordinances if we are not going to enforce them ... I’m for business, but not in a residential area. Please stop the commercial part from coming up into the residential areas.”