Development plan near Devon Horse Show site stirs concern

The midway at the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair in May 2010. More than 100,000 attend the event each spring.
The midway at the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair in May 2010. More than 100,000 attend the event each spring. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 18, 2013

DEVON For decades, the Devon Horse Show has stood as a symbol of the old Main Line, overseen by well-heeled volunteers and drawing a champagne-and-caviar crowd for its internationally renowned equestrian events.

Now the horse show finds itself entangled in a different kind of spectacle.

Last week, the organization's board of directors convened an emergency meeting to address concerns that its president, Wade McDevitt, left them in the dark while he spearheaded a plan to build a hotel, shops, and parking lot next to the Lancaster Avenue fairgrounds, including on parcels it owns.

The project could be lucrative for McDevitt and his relatives. The prospective developer of the site is Urban Outfitters Inc., the Philadelphia-based retailer that employs his wife and was founded by his brother-in-law.

In an eight-page letter sent to the Devon Horse Show's lawyer, a fellow board member accused McDevitt of a conflict of interest and demanded that the board form a committee to review his plans.

"Based on the information available to date, both Wade and Wendy McDevitt have a material interest in the proposed transaction, and stand to receive substantial financial benefit if the deal goes through," said the Nov. 8 letter, written by a lawyer for board member Joanna Glass and obtained by The Inquirer.

McDevitt declined requests for interviews last week, though his lawyer insisted he has been forthcoming in all his dealings. Glass could not be reached. Other board members did not respond to requests for comment.

The conflict has not only roiled horse show insiders. It could also affect the broader community. McDevitt's project could represent the seeds of a potential Town Center in a community that has none.

The Devon Horse Show already draws the people: More than 100,000 flock each spring to its signature and eponymous event.

The fairgrounds also hosts other events - equestrian and non-equestrian - each year and logged $3.7 million in revenue in 2011, according to the horse show's most recent tax returns. Those same returns describe the organization as a fund-raiser for Bryn Mawr Hospital. Between 2009 and 2011, it donated $1.2 million to the hospital.

McDevitt's proposal, presented last month to Easttown Township, calls for Urban Outfitters to develop a high-end retail center, restaurant, and hotel with parking on 6.8 acres along Lancaster Avenue. In March, McDevitt and his business partner, Eli Kahn, bought the main parcel, which had been the longtime home of Waterloo Gardens, a nursery and gardening center.

The proposal also calls for Urban to lease three tracts owned by the horse show. Two are undeveloped parking lots; the third is a former gas station that the horse show had previously considered leasing.

McDevitt is a Chester County native with long-standing family ties to the horse show. His father also served as president and chairman; his sisters were competitive riders.

His development firm, the McDevitt Co., has business worldwide, and is a primary real estate broker for Urban Outfitters, according to SEC documents.

His brother-in-law, Scott Belair, was a founder of the retailer. And Wendy McDevitt is president of Terrain, an Urban brand that hopes to open a store in the new Devon site.

The letter from Glass' lawyer suggested McDevitt had been plotting the project for years but only alerted the horse show directors about the potential lease of its land in September, just before he presented it to Easttown Township.

It also accused him of previously blocking the development of the gas station site Urban now proposes to lease, and of altering the minutes from a meeting of horse show officials to make it appear he had the authority to approve the land lease.

The letter said Glass was not the only one to object. "We know that there are other members of the Board of Directors who share her concerns about corporate governance, transparency and conflicts of interest, but perhaps feel too intimidated to speak their minds," the lawyer Stuart Lurie wrote.

McDevitt's lawyer, Cuyler Walker, disputed many of the claims, particularly the allegation that McDevitt changed the meeting minutes.

Walker said the project has been in the works for "a matter of months," not years. He noted the property wasn't even available until after Waterloo Gardens went bankrupt in June 2012. He also said McDevitt didn't lease the gas station lot earlier because he thought it would bring in a better price if developments in the works nearby were constructed first.

"From a corporate governance perspective, Mr. McDevitt followed all of the expected and necessary procedures," Walker said in an interview Thursday.

McDevitt also won't benefit personally if the lease deals go through, according to Walker. He said the lots would be leased from the horse show directly to the retailer. McDevitt, he said, has recused himself from those negotiations.

And the project can still go through without land from the horse show, the lawyer added.

McDevitt and Kahn's group submitted their initial zoning application with Easttown Township early last month. A meeting on that request was canceled soon after so the developers could revise the application based on feedback from the community and township, Kahn said at the time. He did not elaborate.

Township Manager Dan Fox has said the proposal has received generally positive response because it's not offering the community something it already has, like the car dealerships and gas stations sprinkled along that stretch of Lancaster Avenue.

The township is now waiting for the developers to submit an updated zoning application. Kahn has said that wouldn't happen before the end of the year. He did not return calls for comment last week.

He and McDevitt have previously declined to put a dollar amount on the project. They also have said no contracts are signed. An Urban Outfitters spokeswoman couldn't be reached for comment.

McDevitt called Monday's meeting to "clear up the misinformation" in Lurie's letter, according to the horse show's attorney, George Elser.

Glass's lawyer said the meeting did alleviate some of her concerns, specifically that communication be more transparent in the future. According to Lurie, the situation is "simmering down."

Elser said letting a board committee review the project had been the plan from the start.

"Board members see an opportunity for income to the foundation and some help with the parking challenges they face each year," Elser said. "At the same time they want to be sure it is handled carefully and properly."


tnadolny@phillynews.com

610-313-8205 @TriciaNadolny

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