Barnard House rancor returns to Pocopson

For about eight months, Pocopson Township enjoyed a respite from the acrimony that had plagued the Barnard House project in 2015 – an interlude of serenity that ended at the supervisors’ meeting on Monday, July 11.

Pocopson Township Supervisors Ricki Stumpo (from right) and Elaine DiMonte listen as Alice J. Balsama discusses the Barnard House.

Pocopson Township Supervisors Ricki Stumpo (from right) and Elaine DiMonte listen as Alice J. Balsama discusses the Barnard House.

Two representatives of the Kennett Underground Railroad Center (KURC) – John O’Neal and Michele Sullivan – and Carol Haaf, a resident who served on the former Barnard House Steering Committee, attended the meeting to inquire about renovation plans for the early 1800s building. They left after a protracted discussion, during which O’Neal threatened to renege on a lease agreement the KURC has with the township.

O’Neal’s often-testy questioning, which appeared to take the supervisors by surprise, resembled many of the divisive discussions that occurred at last year's township meetings about plans to repurpose the former stop on the Underground Railroad.

Although the 2015 board of supervisors envisioned the Barnard House as the home of the KURC as well as the township’s municipal building, the latter use hit snags late last year. Among the group of residents expressing concerns that included cost overruns and an unworkable floor plan for township employees were Supervisor Ricki Stumpo and two incoming supervisors, Alice J. Balsama and Elaine DiMonte.

When the board reorganized in January, the three supervisors stated publicly that the board was committed to honoring the lease for KURC as well as preserving the building. However, the fact that three consultants had deemed the building’s layout unsuitable for municipal use gave them pause, they said.

A historic marker appears in front of the historic Barnard House in Pocopson Township.

A historic marker appears in front of the historic Barnard House in Pocopson Township.

The Barnard House still appeared regularly on meeting agendas, but the supervisors’ focus was on readying the KURC’s portion of the building and getting input from the county commissioners about other possible ways to use the building.

At Monday night’s meeting, the supervisors’ eyes widened when O’Neal was less than delighted to hear the news that the $19,000 security system, the last item needed before the KURC could occupy the building, was being installed.

“The security system should be completed by the end of July,” DiMonte reported,  adding that the supervisors had been excited to make that announcement.

Instead, O’Neal wanted to know about the supervisors’ plans for the remainder of the building, noting that the KURC expected access to the kitchen and meeting room. He also wanted to know if the board planned to reinstate the steering committee.

“For what reason?” asked Balsama, pointing out that none of the former committee members had expressed any interest.

Stressing that KURC has been waiting eight years to occupy the building, O’Neal countered that the committee put a plan in place that isn’t being implemented and that the current board seemed to be devising a different path.

“KURC is not interested in renting a modern room in an old house,” O’Neal said. “If we don’t have access to a kitchen, we can get an office trailer and put it on the Baily farm.”

Stumpo, who served on the Barnard House Steering Committee, said she had never heard before that the KURC wanted to use the kitchen and meeting room. Balsama and DiMonte also said they were totally unfamiliar with that requirement.

“I’m totally shocked at the tone of the conversation,” added DiMonte. She said O’Neal’s suggestion that the board was forging its own plan was inaccurate.

DiMonte pointed out that when the county sold the property to the township for $1 in 2008, it imposed restrictions on its use. She said the board is seeking a face-to-face meeting with the commissioners to discuss options for the building.

Haaf explained that a level of frustration exists because many members of the Barnard House Steering committee made a financial and emotional investment in the project. “Now it’s a big void,” she said. “They don’t know what you’re going to do.”

Balsama suggested a remedy. “Don’t be frustrated; just come forward,” she said, explaining that the board could always use help. She also suggested that the KURC put its concerns in writing so that both the board and the KURC would have time to reflect and find solutions.

In other business, the board heard an update on what might be the township’s final Founders Day celebration. Colleen McKinney, chair of the Founders Day Committee, said plans are progressing for the 10th version of the event, to be held on Sunday, Sept. 25, from noon to 4 p.m. at Pocopson Park.

Last year, the popular, family-friendly celebration attracted about 1,000 attendees to moon bounces, live music, hayrides, games, vendors and a host of other activities.

McKinney said she expected to have the budget completed in time for the supervisors to vote on it at their Monday, July 25, meeting. She said a card that would be mailed to residents to let them know about the event would be available for review by the supervisors shortly.

After the meeting, McKinney, whose annual plea for volunteers earlier this year included the need for a new chair, said she received offers of assistance for the day of the event, but no takers for the chief organizing position.

“If no one steps up, it won’t happen next year,” McKinney said after the meeting. “It’s really too bad.”


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