Main Line mansion owner seeks permit to build - months after starting

Lower Merion Township says developer Jay H. Shah skipped permits on home expansion.

The concrete blocks went up months ago, framing the major addition that prominent hotel developer Jay H. Shah planned to add to his Wynnewood mansion.

But Shah, CEO of Hersha Hospitality Trust, had failed to obtain any permits or other required approvals for the addition - or for other unapproved work, including a backyard terrace, done in recent years.

And his century-old home on Gypsy Lane is designated as a historic resource by Lower Merion Township, meaning its owner must obtain approval from the Historical Commission and Board of Commissioners in addition to building permits before beginning construction projects.

Now, construction has been halted as officials sort through claims by Shah, upset neighbors, and preservationists. The central question: Was the unapproved addition an innocent mistake or an outright flouting of local regulations by a wealthy developer who should have known better?

At a Historical Commission meeting Monday, an attorney for the Shahs asked for approval for a scaled-down version of the garage and in-law suite addition. Commission members, acknowledging that they were disturbed yet were powerless to issue punishment for the delayed application, tabled the issue, saying they wanted more information.

"The house is well-preserved, a beautiful home," said George Broseman, who represents the Shahs. "My directions from the Shahs have been to work with the township to come into compliance ... and that's what we've been trying to do."

Neighbors and leaders of the local civic association, however, said the Shahs acted without regard for township regulations.

"This is a precedent-setting case, and what you do here will be with this commission and this township for a long time," said Tony Lame, president of the Wynnewood Civic Association. "The only reason that this is before you is because he got caught."

Jay and Susie Shah, who were not present at Monday's meeting, purchased the brick estate in 2005 for $1.95 million, according to property records. The home has more than 7,000 square feet of living area and was built in 1906 by Philadelphia architect Frank Miles Day.

Jay Shah's success as a hotel developer is well-chronicled. His company owns 55 hotels, including the upscale Rittenhouse in Philadelphia.

Township officials say they learned of construction on the Shah property in March, after it had started, and issued a stop-work order.

The work had also damaged storm water facilities, according to letters township officials sent to the Shahs, and was above the maximum square footage of impervious surface permitted on the property.

Documents show the Shahs met with township officials in August, and the township engineer wrote a letter telling them they must seek approval "or you must remove all impervious surfaces in violation and restore the damaged storm-water facilities."

In October, the township sent two more letters requesting submission of construction plans, names of contractors, and other information about the work - and again stating that "excess impervious surface cover" should be removed within 30 days.

Discussion continued, and an attorney submitted applications to the Historical Commission.

On Monday the commission considered only whether to recommend approval of the garage addition and an increase of the amount of impervious surface permitted on site.

Broseman, the Shahs' attorney, said the homeowners would offer a covenant to increase the historical protections on the house if their increased impervious surface coverage was permitted.

Christian Busch, chairman of the Historical Commission, said he could not recall another application where such a large amount of work began before it came before him.

But, he said, the board does not have punitive power, and only has the ability to put 90-day delays on construction for applications like the Shahs'.

"If they don't have any repercussions from doing this without permits ... then it sets such a precedent, everybody else will say, 'Gee, I guess we don't have to come" to the township for approval, said Historical Commission member Karen Nagel.

Neighbors, who had hired their own lawyer and historic preservation consultant, told the commission Monday that it was inappropriate to approve the work at this point. Lawyer Kenneth Aaron said the Shahs have acted "contrary to procedures."

"The fact that a building was built without permission should give no one a leg up," Aaron said.

"For my part, I can say that I looked at this application the same way as any other application," he said.

Township officials said they were still sorting out what to do about other changes made to the property without permission, including a large backyard terrace and porch. Broseman said he and the Shahs were still working with the township staff members.

"I'm still very confused," said David Johnston, a neighbor of the Shahs, "by the process by which all of this gets resolved."

lmccrystal@phillynews.com

610-313-8116

@Lmccrystal

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