May 13, 2004

Going on the time-honored assumption that the proverbial half-loaf is better than having nothing, the Historic Review Board agreed to recommend historic zoning for part of Jester Park, which occupies the site of an old former farm off Grubb Road.

"We [would] already have part of the parcel in our pocket," said board member Marilyn Reed while supporting Councilman Robert Weiner's request that at least the farmhouse and barn on the property be brought under the cover of an historic overlay.

Reed told her colleagues to "keep in mind this is an election year" and there is no telling what a successor administration will do with the present Gordon administration's pledge not to disturb the structures while a decision on the ultimate use of the parkland is yet to be made.

In the process of discussing the issue, which has been hanging for more than two years, the board agreed to invite administration officials to, in the words of board chairman Barbara Benson, "give us an update on the status" of a proposal to establish a resident curatorship program which would result in there being live-in caretakers of structures like the Jester farmhouse.

Weiner said that, after County Executive Tom Gordon endorsed that idea and said he would seek to establish a program, the Department of Special Services prepared a report and submitted a draft plan to Sherry Freebery, the county's chief administrative officer. "That was over a year ago and there it still sits on [her] desk," Weiner said.

He added that he did not know what the plan is because, "she has refused to 'release' it ... [or] even let me see it." But, he said, he is aware that at "about a dozen" people have submitted applications to become resident curators. Under a program currently in operation in Maryland, qualified curators receive an open-end lease allowing them to live rent-free in an historic house in return for renovating and maintaining the structure.

The 'half-loaf' actually is about a twentieth of a loaf.

Weiner said, at a board hearing on May 12, that he will introduce zoning legislation to put an overlay over 1.38 acres of the 25.8-acre property. He previously sought to have the entire parcel covered, but did not bring the ordinance that would do so to a vote in Council after the Planning Board and Department of Land Use recommended against its adoption. The Historic Review Board, an autonomous panel under the aegis of the land use department, had recommended approval.

Council has final say over whether or not to impose a zoning overlay, which does not change a property's basic zoning but adds some protective conditions to the development plan approval process.

Weiner said he is confident he can garner sufficient support on Council to enact the smaller Jester Park overlay. With previous objection by the special services department likely to remain, he said he could not secure approval of the larger overlay. The department's objection is that historical protection of the property would inhibit its ability to develop the park and some future but undetermined time.

The smaller overlay would cover a relatively narrow oblong strip of land abutting the portion of the property leased to Hy-Pont Dairy Farms as a grazing field for its cows. Fronting on Grubb Road, the affected strip would extend back to embrace the unused house and the barn. The farm is said to be typical of the small farms which once dominated the Brandywine Hundred landscape.

The review board voted five-to-one to recommend the smaller overlay to the department, Planning Board and County Council. Council, which deals with zoning ordinances only thrice a year, will not get to vote on it at least until autumn.

Only board member Wade Catts sided with civic activist Lou Liarakos, who said officers of civic associations in the area, represented through the Grubb Road Alliance which he formed, did not want partial coverage. "Once you split this [into] two parcels, you are saying the Historic Review Board doesn't value the rest of the property," he testified.

Weiner said he, too, would prefer having the entire property covered, but was being practical in light of the political realities which pertain to the issue. He promised, however, that he "will someday come back for an overlay for the entire property."

Stephanie Bruning, the planner who serves as the land use department's liaison with the review board, said that might not be critical vis--vis future development of the park. With the house and barn protected by an overlay, any development plan would have to pass muster regarding its visual and other effects on those structures, she said.

The county's long-range plan for parkland development calls for Jester Park to eventually be used for active recreation. Weiner, who sides with area residents who reportedly favor 'passive' recreation for the site by a large margin, said he is seeking to have the present designation changed.

In any event, Liarakos told the board, he and the civic associations have been assured that no development of the site will happen without extensive public participation in the planning process.

Bruning also apparently put to rest what Weiner said was a situation which "has created a degree of community nervousness" -- a permit to demolish the structures obtained by the special services department two years ago. Bruning said that permit has expired and the department would have to seek another one, the granting of which, the review board could, at a minimum, delay for nine months.

2004. All rights reserved.

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