In Pocopson, Barnard House divide intensifies

For more than six months, critics of the plan to renovate the historic Barnard House into a Pocopson Township administration building and a home for the Kennett Underground Railroad Center have increased in numbers and intensity.

Pocopson Township's Barnard House continues to spark controversy.

The repurposing of Pocopson Township's Barnard House continues to generate controversy.

Having cited cost overruns, shoddy workmanship, conflicts of interest, and an unsuitable floor plan for township employees, a group of residents – including a present supervisor and two incoming supervisors – have advocated a slowdown. They have suggested that easing the throttle of what is starting to resemble a runaway train would protect the township from risks such as excessive debt and unusable workspace.

Although both sides have expressed unequivocal support for preserving an early 1800s building that once served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, a number of residents have raised questions and concerns about the process of achieving that goal. The negative feedback has angered members of the Barnard House Steering Committee, who have pointed out that they have worked tirelessly on the project for years.

Committee members maintain that the opportunity to preserve a significant historic structure and transform it into a signature building that will engender community pride represents a win for everyone. And at a committee meeting last week the group made its intentions clear: full steam ahead.

Details such as built-in cabinets and intricately crafted fireplace surrounds are among the notable features of the Barnard House.

Details such as built-in cabinets and intricately crafted fireplace surrounds are among the notable features of the Barnard House.

Supervisor Georgia Brutscher, a member of the Steering Committee, said she and Supervisors’ Chairman Barney Leonard would start the loan application, regardless of the status of the bid package, and would call a “special meeting” if it were necessary to expedite either the loan or the bidding process.

“Time is of the essence,” said committee member Jean Conary. Brutscher agreed, cautioning her colleagues that they only have until the end of December to advance the project.

During the meeting, committee members demonstrated how contentious the Barnard House has become, periodically taking swipes at critics. Seated at the same table as Supervisor Ricki Stumpo, also a member of the Steering Committee, Conary called Brutscher the only “functioning supervisor” present.

During an update on the project for the committee, Richard Jensen, the township’s zoning-code enforcement officer, said he was tired of the township’s hostile environment. “I’ve had enough tomfoolery from Pocopson Township,” he said, promising to quit as soon as his role in the Barnard House was completed. “Then I’m going to say goodbye to Pocopson Township, not just the Barnard House,” he said.

In July, Jensen was removed from his role as project manager after resident Sean Rafferty questioned Jensen’s dual role as project manager and code enforcement officer. Rafferty noted that Jensen had issued a building permit for the Barnard House about three weeks after Keystone Municipal Services, the township’s building inspector, recommended denying it unless specific conditions were met.

Rafferty’s concerns prompted a review from the State Ethics Commission that was deemed confusing and inconclusive. With Stumpo dissenting, Brutscher and Leonard reinstated Jensen as project manager last month, stating that he would no longer conduct inspections but was needed to sign off on work that had already been done.

Residents on both sides of the Barnard House divide agree that Pocopson Township has outgrown its current administration building, a former garage.

Residents on both sides of the Barnard House divide agree that Pocopson Township has outgrown its current administration building, a former garage.

In an email, Leonard declined to comment on whether efforts to fast-track the Barnard House project serve the best interests of township residents, explaining that he didn’t believe it was “appropriate for me to make comments involving the business of our municipality or the decisions the Board of Supervisors may or may not make other than in a public meeting.”

Stumpo said she believed her votes and statements at numerous meetings have clearly identified her position. “This is a difficult time, and we need to get more residents’ thoughts,” not just a small group of people, she said. “Let’s put the brakes on until we hear from more residents.”

The incoming supervisors – Elaine DiMonte and Alice Balsama – both voiced discomfort with the project’s current direction.

DiMonte said she has been attending meetings on the Barnard House since February in an effort to gather information so she could make informed decisions on how to proceed, a quest that was hampered by the project’s lack of transparency.

“As an incoming supervisor, at minimum, I need to understand the financial impact to the township regarding the funding for the Barnard House,” she said. “It really is time for the emotion and drama to be set aside so that key decisions can be taken with regards to next steps.  Rushing the bid packet, bid responses, selection process, contract negotiation and loan application is unprofessional and irresponsible.”

Balsama applauded the willingness of volunteers to dedicate their time to a project like the Barnard House, but she expressed disappointment with the way the board majority and the Steering Committee have failed to respond to residents’ inquiries.

“The variety and frequency of actions taken contrary to solicited, paid professional evaluations has directly contributed to this project coming under additional scrutiny by township residents,” Balsama said.

She called the possibility of using special meetings to advance a $750,000 loan package when the bid package hasn’t been evaluated unacceptable.

“Let's stop acting like the house is on fire,” Balsama said. “Let's agree that a solid, complete plan with a beginning and an end, which includes the preservation of the Underground Railway, the effective use of the remainder of the Barnard House, and an acceptable location to warehouse Pocopson municipal office operations and meeting space does not exist today, and is needed.

“We need to set aside precipitous decisions like committing the township to a $750,000 loan burden without a plan adoptable in all fronts,” Balsama continued. “We need to work together and try to be a community; we are all volunteers.”

Sarah Mims, a member of the township’s Historical Committee, also said she was troubled by recent developments.

“The current actions of the two departing supervisors with regard to pushing Phase Two of the Barnard House project prior to the end of the year may or may not be illegal, but it is certainly unethical,” she said. “Supervisors have an ethical responsibility to represent taxpayers’ wishes.

“That is currently not happening in Pocopson Township,” Mims added.   “I find it surprising that both of these supervisors want these unethical actions to be their legacy.”

The supervisors’ next meeting is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 26, at 7:30 p.m. The agenda includes several actions related to the Barnard House.

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