In Pocopson, Barnard House tensions persist

Tensions stemming from the Barnard House continued to surface during the Pocopson Township Board of Supervisors’ meeting on Monday, Aug. 15.

Michele Sullivan, a board member of the KURC, addresses the audience at the Pocopson supervisors' meeting on Monday, Aug. 15.

Michele Sullivan, a board member of the KURC, addresses the audience at the Pocopson supervisors' meeting on Monday, Aug. 15.

Tempers remained in check, sometimes just barely, during a discussion that dominated the hour-long session. In the end, the supervisors reiterated their stance that no final decision has been made on the fate of the early 1800s building, except that it would be protected.

Three people addressed the board: Michele Sullivan, a board member of the Kennett Underground Railroad Center (KURC); Lauressa McNemar, a member of the township’s now-defunct Barnard House Steering Committee; and Randy Mims, a member of the township’s Historical Committee.

Sullivan said the KURC, which has an agreement to rent a portion of the early 1800s building, has concerns that the current board of supervisors has not embraced a previous board’s plan to use the building to house the KURC as well as the township’s municipal offices. She said the KURC was told that it would have access to three areas of the building: its designated space, an adjacent hallway, and the township’s meeting room.

“It’s not in the lease,” interjected Supervisors’ Chairwoman Ricki Stumpo.

Sullivan said she also understood that either the township or the KURC could abandon the agreement, but she said the KURC felt strongly that the former Underground Railroad stop represented “a remarkable gift” and that the KURC wanted to participate in preserving its legacy.

McNemar said she attended the meeting because the supervisors had expressed interest in hearing from members of the Barnard House Steering Committee. She said she was troubled by the July 11 minutes that referenced the supervisors’ reliance on three professional opinions that the Barnard House was not suitable for township offices. “That was a shock to me,” McNemar said.

She said she submitted an open-records request and received only two reports, both of which were part of studies that were not specifically commissioned to analyze the space. McNemar requested that the board produce the basis for its conclusion or publicly correct the minutes.

The Pocopson Township Board of Supervisors – Alice Balsama (from left), Elaine DiMonte and Ricki Stumpo – acknowledge that the Barnard House represents a challenge.

The Pocopson Township Board of Supervisors – Alice Balsama (from left), Elaine DiMonte and Ricki Stumpo – acknowledge that the Barnard House represents a challenge for the board.

Supervisor Alice Balsama explained that three people with business expertise walked through the building and raised concerns about its layout, which gave the supervisors pause. Balsama said the experts’ input has prompted further evaluation.

One of the reports that McNemar referenced came from the Robert B. and Helen S. Meyner Center for the Study of State and Local Government at Lafayette College. Its 2015 efficiency study recommended that the township explore other locations before trying to use the historic building for municipal use.

“Even if the current wall is removed to make the public meeting room larger, it may still be too small for the township’s future needs,” the report said.  “Further, it appears that the administrative offices would be on the second floor of the Barnard House, which may provide building and handicapped access issues.”

Balsama also noted that the renovation costs could put an unfair burden on taxpayers. So far, the township has spent more than $600,000 on renovations with much work still remaining. When the county sold the property to the township for $1 in 2008, it imposed limitations on its use. The supervisors said they have been trying to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the county commissioners to discuss the township’s options.

The restrictions in the agreement even preclude renting space to another nonprofit to try and cover costs, Balsama said. “There’s no latitude to do anything except to pour money into it,” she said. “We have to be able to support a tax burden on the people that voted us into office and live next door…”

Stressing that no final decision has been made, Supervisor Elaine DiMonte said, “We’re still gathering information and trying to decide what to do.”

DiMonte said a meeting on Aug. 11 at the Barnard House with Sen. Tom Killion, R-9, and Rep. Steve Barrar, R-160, was productive. She said they seemed to understand the supervisors’ concerns about costs and encouraged the township to apply for grants.

The supervisors’ insistence that more research was needed dovetailed with Mims’ remarks, which prompted McNemar to exit the meeting, accusing Mims of getting personal. Mims replied that he was simply presenting facts and suggested appointing a committee of people without emotional attachments to the building, a group that would include representatives from the township’s Parks, Recreation and Trails and Historical committees as well as the Planning Commission.

Mims said he concurred that much work needed to be done, and he recommended that the supervisors get assistance from their constituents to find a solution to the problem. He said he was happy to serve as a resource but not a committee member. “I really want it restored,” he said of the Barnard House.

Resident Judy Lovell asked what members of the public could do to help, and Mims suggested that making their concerns known to lawmakers and the commissioners might be a start.

In other business, the supervisors gave what they termed their “last extension” to Justin Colella, for the installation of a fence in compliance with a Zoning Hearing Board decision.

They also voted unanimously to support a joint effort endorsed by the Chester County Association of Township Officials to repeal the Sterling Act. Passed by the state legislature in 1932, the law has enabled Philadelphia to tax township residents without remitting any portion of the wage fee back to the township.

The board agreed that they needed more information to respond to a question from Ross Unruh, the township solicitor, about whether the township had money for an “open-space opportunity.” Stumpo said the open-space fund had been exhausted; however, the budget contained $1 million that was earmarked to pay back an open-space loan early to save money. Theoretically, those funds could be tapped if the opportunity merited it, she said.

The supervisors voted to approve the $8,477 budget for what is likely to be the township's last Founders Day, due to a lack of volunteers, and they enthusiastically   approved Kevin Gosselin as the township’s Emergency Management Coordinator and Jim Knightly as fire marshal.

“We hope it’s a boring job,” said DiMonte, suggesting that the township needed to be ready for an emergency but not experience one.

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