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Devon Horse Show chairman resigns amid development debate

EASTTOWN The chairman of the Devon Horse Show has resigned, four months after board members at the prestigious Main Line institution challenged what some said was his undisclosed role in a proposal to build a high-end retail center and hotel beside the fairgrounds.

A horse cools off during the Devon Horse Show. (Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)
A horse cools off during the Devon Horse Show. (Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)Read more

EASTTOWN The chairman of the Devon Horse Show has resigned, four months after board members at the prestigious Main Line institution challenged what some said was his undisclosed role in a proposal to build a high-end retail center and hotel beside the fairgrounds.

Wade McDevitt, whose grandfather was one of the show's founders and who in many ways grew up on its grounds, said he stepped down to spend more time with his family. The plan he had backed to build what could be Devon's first taste of a town center - a project in which his family stood to profit - has stalled.

Easttown Township officials say they haven't heard from the property owners or proposed developer, Urban Outfitters Inc., in five months. And McDevitt's replacement as horse show president said she doubted the plan, which included leasing lots from the horse show, would advance anytime soon.

"No one's called me, made any effort to call me, called any of the board," Sarah Cox Lange said. "I just don't get a sense there's any urgency here."

Her appointment and McDevitt's resignation as chairman amounts to a shake-up at the venerable organization, whose county fair and internationally renowned equestrian events are run by hundreds of well-to-do volunteers and draw a refined crowd. A new chairman has not been selected.

As president, Cox Lange has promised change, vowing to make the show more approachable, trim the size of the board, and champion "complete transparency."

Last week, the horse show's newly hired lawyer, William Lamb, declined to comment on whether McDevitt's decision to step down was connected to allegations made in November that his dealings amounted to a conflict of interest. McDevitt remains a member of the show's board. Lamb said there were still unresolved issues related to McDevitt's involvement in the development, but declined to elaborate, adding that he hoped to have an "amicable resolution" soon.

McDevitt's roots at Urban Outfitters, as at the horse show, run deep.

His wife, Wendy McDevitt, is an executive of Urban Outfitters - president of Terrain, one of the brands that hoped to open a store at the Devon site - and also a horse show board member. Her brother, Scott Belair, is on Urban Outfitters' board of directors and was one of its founders.

The future of the development, dubbed Devon Yard, could have an impact beyond the neighboring horse show by transforming a dull stretch of Lancaster Avenue now dotted with gas stations and car dealerships. The fairgrounds, which for decades have stood as a symbol of the old Main Line, draw crowds for year-round events and more than 100,000 people each spring for the signature horse show.

The nonprofit horse show - which, according to its tax returns, logged $3.7 million in revenue in 2011 - is also the single largest contributor to Bryn Mawr Hospital, having given the institution more than $14 million. A hospital spokeswoman declined to comment on the concerns surrounding Devon Yard. She said Wade McDevitt was still a member of the hospital foundation's board.

McDevitt, 51, a developer whose firm was Urban Outfitters' primary real estate broker for the last four years, has held leadership roles at the horse show for nearly a decade. Like his father before him, he was chairman and president, and he lives with his family just blocks from the fairgrounds.

McDevitt and his business partner, Eli Kahn, bought the almost six-acre property - the former home of a Waterloo Gardens store - last March.

In October, Urban Outfitters' chief development officer told Easttown Township's planning commission that the company hoped to build retail, restaurants, a boutique hotel, and a parking garage on the property. The executive stood with McDevitt and Kahn as he delivered a presentation that included artist renderings and a three-dimensional model of Devon Yard.

Township Manager Dan Fox said he believed that Kahn, McDevitt, and Urban Outfitters were "all partners" in the development.

In November, a lawyer for a horse show board member, Joanna Glass, wrote a letter to the horse show's attorney accusing McDevitt of "setting the stage" for the project and leasing horse show land to its developers while keeping the board in the dark about the plans.

There has been no public movement since on the plan.

Last week, McDevitt said he was not a partner in the proposal and denied any conflict or wrongdoing, saying the "horse show has always and will always conduct itself appropriately."

"I include myself in that definition," he said.

He also said he hadn't spoken to anyone at Urban Outfitters about the project since November and said his stepping down as chairman was a personal decision.

"Time is precious," he said, "and anything I can do to manage my life to have more time with my family, I'm going to do."

Both he and Kahn downplayed the lull in activity on the project, saying it wasn't uncommon for a developer to make an initial proposal and go back to the drawing board for several months, as Urban Outfitters has.

"They know we're out here owning a property. They know we're looking at options," McDevitt said. "They know we thought their proposal was an interesting one."

Kahn said the potential lease was "not really" affected by the allegations involving McDevitt. "When we come back in with a revised project, it will be clear and understood by everybody what we're proposing to do at that point in time."

He declined to say whether leasing the horse show property would still be part of the plan. Those lots - a vacant gas station and a long parking lot along Dorset Road - are central to the plan Urban Outfitters proposed in the fall, according to Fox, who said the development would probably not move forward without them.

The township official said he thought the group would return with an updated zoning application by early this year and has been somewhat surprised they have not.

A spokeswoman for Urban Outfitters did not respond to requests last week for comment.

Lamb, the horse show's attorney, said that if the board was approached about leasing land to Urban Outfitters, he didn't expect the talks to be hostile, in part because the allegations regarding McDevitt would have been resolved.

Cox Lange, who was appointed president in December after a yearlong search, acknowledged that the episode has spurred needed changes at the organization. She said Glass' letter challenging the board president "reawakened" a 52-member board that had become "a little complacent."

That board will soon be cut in half, with remaining members being required to attend meetings and join committees, she said.

Cox Lange, whose ancestors helped found the horse show in 1896 and whose family owns the Willisbrook Farms equestrian center in Malvern, also said she was committed to breaking down the impression that the horse show was elitist. She promised: "This is a new Devon Horse Show."