August 6, 2003

County Executive Tom Gordon will move to set up a resident-curator program as a means for preserving historic properties and has designated the Jester farmhouse off Grubb Road in Brandywine Hundred as the initial property to benefit from the program, the Planning Board was told.

The announcement by Tracy Surles, senior manager in the Department of Community Services, came as the board took testimony on whether to recommend that County Council apply historic zoning overlays on it and two other properties. The Historic Review Board and an overwhelming majority of members of the public participating in the hearing supported its doing so.

The curator program, which is in use in Maryland and elsewhere, provides for a person who commits to investing a significant sum of money and 'sweat equity' in an historic structure and agrees to make it available on at least a limited basis to the public to be given a lifetime rent-free lease and possibly qualify for a tax deduction for what is expended to preserve and maintain it.

Surles actually was one of two proverbial knights in shining armor to effect classic nick-of-time rescues at the marathon session on Aug. 5. The other was Ralph Reeb, director of planning for the Delaware Department of Transportation, who disclosed in a letter read into the hearing record that the state agency will buy the Weldin house on Philadelphia Pike half way up Penny Hill.

Both properties have been the objects of community controversies for the past several months. Residents of developments in the area of the Jester farm were aroused by reports that a regional soccer organization wanted to locate as many as eight fields on the site and focused efforts to counter that on the county's request for a permit to demolish the house, which is believed to date back to circa 1800. The Weldin house, which is even older and was owned by one of the hundred's pioneer families, sits on a tract which the Seven-Eleven convenience store chain sought to buy. Under that plan it would have been  torn down to make room for a store.

Dan Hammond, a member of the land search committee of the Concord Soccer Association, said the league still thinks the Jester property would be a good site for its youth sports program, but has dropped efforts to put it there because "we don't want to go where we're not wanted." Seven-Eleven withdrew its proposal several months ago after Secretary of Transportation Nathan Hayward sided with community opponents of its plan and pledged to do whatever was possible in his official capacity to thwart it.

Surles and Reeb both asked the Planning Board to deny or at least delay a decision on whether to recommend historic overlays, which presumably would prevent Council from taking action on the matter in October, when it is to hold one of the year's three sessions at which it is permitted to consider zonings. Imposing an historic overlay is considered a rezoning although it does not affect the underlying zoning classification of the property.

Surles said that, although the county no longer has any intention of demolishing the house, her department does not want to encumber its administration "five or 10 years down the road" when it might revisit its plan to develop the property as parkland.

Reeb said a delay would allow time for DelDOT to complete the mandated process for purchasing that property and begin deciding to what use it should be put. Wayne Rizzo, of the department's real estate section, who attended the hearing, later told the board that a delay was not necessary as long as the overlay applied just to the farmhouse and not the entire site at the intersection of the pike with Marsh Road and Lore Avenue.

Uncontested at the hearing was a request by C.P.S. Investors for an overlay on the Holloday house on Briars Lane off Kennett Pike just north of the Barley Mill Road interchange at Greenville. The firm wants to put up an addition to a garage and greenhouse on the site for offices and to convert the house into offices while preserving its exterior appearance and the park-like tract on which it sits, C.P.S.'s lawyer, Wendy Stabler, testified. There are no prospective tenants for the offices at this time but the preference would be a single law or financial services firm, she said.

That property is considerably younger than the farmhouses, having been built in the early 1930s by a Du Pont Co. executive as a wedding present for his daughter. It is considered historic, Stabler said, because it is "a smaller version of the grand estate homes" in that part of Christiana Hundred popularly referred to hereabouts as 'château country'.

A peripheral issue raised by the controversial cases is the fact that both proposals for historic overlays were initiated by the Historic Review Board and not the owners or prospective owners of the properties involved. Such a pro-active stance could be construed as having the board, a public body, decide the merits of its own proposal.

Neither Sheila Neff nor Marilyn Reed, the review board members who presented its positions at the hearing, spoke directly to that point. Nanette Swadey, a lawyer who testified on behalf of the Friends of Penny Hill, a community group organized during the Seven-Eleven dispute, said her research found that the panel does have the authority to do that. Chairman Victor Singer did not indicate whether the Planning Board will deal with that question.

Carol Harrington, who presently owns and lives in the Weldin House, does not want an overlay because it could diminish the amount of money that could be realized from its sale. Even though DelDOT apparently is now committed to buy it, Harrington's lawyer, Andrew Taylor, said that could still hold because DelDOT is statutorily required to base its bid on an independent appraisal considering the 'highest and best' use of the property under existing conditions. Limitations imposed by an overlay on either the house or the site before the sale is consummated could limit uses and thereby decrease the allowable bid, Taylor said.

Surles testified that the county originally sought a demolition permit because an engineering study discovered structural defects in the Jester farmhouse that would cost upwards of $100,000 to remedy. The county acquired the property in the 1970s as part of its parkland acquisition program, but agreed for the former owner to live there until the 1990s.

She said park development is indefinitely on hold and that matter would not be reopened without community participation. Meanwhile, she said, Special Services is now negotiating a formal lease with Hy-Point Dairy to replace the present informal agreement. Hy-Point keeps cows there and uses part of the farm to grow feed for them. Surles said the lease probably will have a term of five or six years.

Referring to the resident-curator program, Surles said Gordon and Sherry Freebery, the county's chief administrative officer, are "very impressed with the program" and that a plan has been drafted to implement it. But Surles gave no details. A group of community representatives convened by Councilman Robert Weiner has been studying that idea and others related to historic preservation. Weiner did not attend the Planning Board hearing.

Before Surles's announcement, William Day Jr., who owns the abutting property, testified that the Jester farm "is a perfect example of a working farm" common to Brandywine Hundred in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. He said it "reflects the life of the average citizen of 150 years ago" and it is well worth preserving "properties of people other than those who owned powder mills" for future generations.

He said he has an especial interest in the issue because his father, William Sr., was born and raised there. "It should really be called the Jester-Day farm," he said. Day's son, William III, testified that the old house "is like a senior citizen who can tell us stories of the past."

Tod Baseden, who also lives on Grubb Road, testified about what he called overwhelming community support for keeping the property essentially the way it is now and not give it over to sports or other active recreation. "Too many of these old homes are being destroyed," he said.

He endorsed the resident-curator program as a means that has been proven successful elsewhere and would work here, Disputing the suggestion it has structural problems, he said, "You could live in it right now."

Charles Field, who spoke on behalf of the Friends of Penny Hill, testified that his organization did not oppose reuse of the Weldin House for a purpose consistent with its neighborhood-commercial zoning status. He said that would be "in keeping with the character of the neighborhood" which has 19 commercial establishments, 21 former residences converted to commercial uses and 25 residences.

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