To Jay H. and Susie Shah, the addition of an in-law suite over the garage of their Main Line mansion was a necessary project to house elderly parents from India — and one for which they are sorry they did not seek building permits.
To neighbors and critics, the major addition to the brick manor was an egregious abuse of local regulations by a wealthy hotel developer who should have known better.
And to the Lower Merion Township Board of Commissioners, it was a problem for which they had to accept the Shahs' apology and move on.
The commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday night to have the Shahs remove some of the unauthorized projects done in the last decade at their home, including a patio and part of their driveway, and pay more than $13,000 in fees and fines. Their proposed in-law suite and garage addition can move forward.
The vote came nearly a year after a stop-work order was issued to the Shahs for their unauthorized garage and in-law suite, and after months of vigorous negotiations, closely watched by neighbors and community groups, that included the discovery of years of unauthorized work.
Shah, CEO of Hersha Hospitality Trust, spoke publicly about the issue for the first time Wednesday, offering an apology to the commissioners.
"We acknowledge our mistake and fully understand the position the township has taken," he said.
Shah heads a $466 million company that has 53 hotels, including the Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia. He grew up living and working in his family's motel in Lancaster, and now runs Hersha alongside his brother.
His home on Gypsy Lane, with eight bedrooms and 7,300 square feet, reflects his success in the family business. The Shahs purchased the house for $1.95 million in 2005. Built by architect Frank Miles Day, the century-old house was featured on the cover of a 2006 Builder/Architect magazine, which described it as "a magnificent manor home situated along Philadelphia's prestigious Main Line."
Susie Shah, a radiologist at Chestnut Hill Hospital, told a township committee last week that their in-law suite project began after she had to fly to India to bring back her sick mother. They needed a place for her parents to live, she said, so she talked to her husband about turning the attic above their garage into a residence.
"Originally conceived, it was a small and not very ambitious project, and we should have gotten permits," she said. "The scope of the improvements got bigger than we anticipated."
The dispute is also one between neighbors. Susie Shah and her neighbors A.K. and David Johnston, traded accusations at a committee meeting last week.
The Johnstons hired their own lawyer to fight the project and argue that the Shahs should not be permitted to proceed with their unauthorized work, which they claim has infringed on the view from their home and brought a steady stream of work crews to a shared driveway.
Susie Shah said the Johnstons had turned down offers to be reimbursed for their legal bills, and had entered the Shah property to take photographs. A.K. Johnston countered that the Shahs have accused her of harassing them, because she stopped people entering the Shah property via the shared driveway.
“We’ve received a threatening notice charging us with harassment and saying that they’re going to call police,” Johnston said.
Commissioners on Wednesday said they were unhappy that the Shahs flouted township regulations, but insisted that they did not receive special treatment because they are wealthy. Commissioner Philip Rosenzweig said he accepted the Shahs' apology.
“And I don’t want anyone to take away, notwithstanding the unhappy neighbor, that this is somehow a path around our process,” he said.
The commissioners also left residents with a bit of advice: Township staff cannot constantly monitor every building project, so watch what your neighbors are doing.
“If you see something that’s going on, it doesn’t hurt to pick up the phone and make a phone call. For 10 years [the Shahs] built and no one called,” said Commissioner Paul McElhaney. “Simply put, staff can’t be everywhere. You all have the responsibility to make phone calls.”