Owner of proposed boutique hotel at Hollystone answers zoning questions

A plan to convert the historic Hollystone Manor into a “boutique hotel” — in the heart of preservation lands around Baldpate Mountain — began its journey through review Wednesday at the Hopewell Township Board of Zoning Adjustment. 

The new property owner, Margot Stern, spent more than three hours fielding questions, many of them pointed, about her request for a zoning variance for the 24-acre estate on Fiddlers Creek Road in Titusville.

“We’re very committed to the project,” Stern told the Board during the virtual meeting attended by upwards of 100 people. “Ultimately, we want to do something really special and we want to do it in partnership with the community.” 

The project would convert the existing 200-year-old house, barn, and newer cottages into an upscale, 27-room hotel with a pool, spa, and farm-to-table dining room. It involves renovation of the existing property rather than construction of new units. 

The property at 29 Fiddlers Creek Road sits between the 1,200-acre Ted Stiles Forest Preserve and the Fiddler Creek Nature Preserve. A use variance is required because the property is within the Mountain Resource Conservation District (MRCD), which limits its permitted uses to one residential unit on a minimum of 14 acres. There is no provision in the MRCD for any commercial use.

The original Hollystone has a storied past. Once owned by Joseph Titus, the patriarch of the family that developed Titusville, it also has existed as a dairy farm and was owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Trenton in the 1960s as a potential retirement home for clergy. Construction of parts of the house date back more than 200 years, according to records. It is designated a potentially eligible historic landmark by the State Housing Preservation Office.

The property was most recently owned by the Saladino family, who sold hundreds of adjoining acres of the original farmstead to Mercer County to form the Fiddlers Creek nature preserve. The remaining 24 acres includes 13.4 acres held in a conservatorship and 10.4 acres of improvable land.

Business Plan

Stern said the business model for “The Hopewell” targets “a particular kind of tourist” within the population of 30 million people from urban areas of Philadelphia to New York City, who are looking to drive a short distance to get out of the city for an outdoor immersive experience. The room rates would be up to $700 a night and she expects occupancy rates of 60% or more. She said that “success is seen as inevitable” and she has the backing of investors and banks.

Stern, who has an MBA from Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania, has focused her recent career on sustainable tourism after working in global marketing with Disney and Mattel. She has experience developing similar boutique hotels in the US and Mexico. 

Stern addressed several issues of concern during questions from the Township officials, Zoning Board members, attorneys for neighbors opposed to the project, and the neighbors themselves.

Weddings & Noise

Of particular concern to the public was the use of the hotel as a wedding venue or for other large gatherings.

Stern said flatly that weddings were not part of her business model. “Weddings are kind of a nightmare,” she said. “It’s just not a place conducive to a large wedding and we won’t have space for it.”

Asked if she would agree to restrictions on amplified sound as a condition of the variance, Stern said, “Yes. Absolutely.” She also said outdoor lighting, including down directed lights, would be as minimal as possible and still comply with safety and code standards.

She described her vision for the property as a small, serene place of respite amid nature that will target ecotourism and lean into guided hikes, farm-to-table cooking classes or a fireside chat with local authors. Part of its appeal to guests will be its connection to sustainability and the environment.

“It’s an intimate venue; an upscale boutique inn,” she said. “It’s not part of our business plan to have death metal concerts or big events.”

Environmental Impact

Stern also addressed multiple questions concerning the environmental impact of the project.

The 27 rooms of the hotel would be spread out among the house, three cottages, and renovated barn, which, per Stern’s zoning application, currently contain 9 bedrooms, 6 bedrooms, and 2 bedrooms, respectively. Stern said the project would upgrade and modernize the current patch-work of septic systems.

Specifics about septic, water, parking, and other engineering issues will be addressed separately during the hearing by the experts who produced reports for the application.

Stern promised the project will deeply consider the impact of renovations. 

She said she has consulted with several organizations such as Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space, Wild Birds, Rolling Harvest, and others. She said she is building environmental improvements into the site plan, including replacing existing asphalt surfaces with permeable pavers and gravel; the introduction of beehives in the conservation envelope to aid in pollination; and removing invasive vegetation and replacing native species.

Community Benefits 

Debra Hodge, a long-time Fiddlers Creek homeowner, asked Stern how the project would benefit neighbors and the local community.

Stern indicated the creation of 10 to 15 full-time jobs and the ripple effect of spending by hotel guests in the surrounding area. She also cited a local membership plan that will be offered to residents who can use the spa, dining room and other amenities on a limited basis. Further, she said the improvements to the long-neglected property would benefit neighbors.

“Hopefully what is beneficial is preservation of a property that is in pretty bad disrepair and has been for sale for 20 years, so I hope residents will value someone in your neighborhood trying to take care of the property whether or not people agree with the way I’m doing it,” Stern said. 

Conservation Easement

One of the most significant questions of the night remained unanswered and discussion was deferred until the next meeting.

Lawyers representing concerned neighbors, including John Mastrosimone, who has collected dozens of signatures on a petition opposing the hotel, questioned whether the variance would violate the terms of a conservation easement that covers a majority of the estate. 

The easement was granted by the Saladinos to Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space(FoHVOS) in 2010. FoHVOS is a land trust “dedicated to preserving the Valley’s character by partnering with the community to preserve land, protect natural resources, and inspire a new generation of conservation,” per their website. FoHVOS holds easements around the Hopewell Valley to preserve open space.

“The matter should be deemed moot and not go forward at all because of the existence of a conservation easement,” said Edward Bernstein, representing Mastrosimone. “The Zoning Board can’t define terms of the conservation easement. That has to be left to a judicial party.” Bernstein further cited language in the easement and the definition of “the property” and “the envelope” as grounds for a need for a judicial review before the Zoning Board can proceed.

Robert Ridolfi, a lawyer representing Stern, said that they had been working closely with the conservator, FoHVOS, as well as the State Department of Environmental Protection to ensure compliance with the agreement. 

“Both have signed off,” he said. “We feel confident the easement doesn’t affect the developable area of the envelope.”

Board Chair Eric Hatke had explained at the beginning of the meeting that it is the policy of the Board to recess no later than 10:30pm. As of 10:30pm at this meeting, only a few members of the public had had a chance to speak. The meeting was continued until the January meeting (date has not yet been published).

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