September 10, 2004

Living in a serene setting without having to worry about mortgage payments, rent or even property taxes might sound like something out of an utopian dream. There is, however, a catch -- or, as some would prefer to put it, a trade-off.

The two houses which the New Castle County Department of Special Services plans to make available on that basis are fixer-uppers -- big time fixer-uppers. But they also are properties that both the county and interested community and historically oriented groups have declared worthy of fixing up and preserving.

Using the county's quarterly activities brochure circulated as an advertising supplement in the News Journal newspaper as an unusual vehicle to do so, the county, in the names of County Executive Tom Gordon and chief administrative officer Sherry Freebery, 'announced' that it is ready to go ahead with a resident curator program which has been under consideration for about two years.

Initially proposed as a way to prevent demolition of the farmhouse, barn and an outbuilding in Jester Park, the program, which is modeled on a reportedly successful one in Maryland, will initially include that property and a house in Bechtel Park. The parks are off Grubb Road and Naamans Road, respectively.

Its emerging into public view as a fully defined program after a relatively long hibernation caught two of the early proponents of a curatorship in Jester Park off guard. They reacted with mixed responses.

"While we are cheered by the fact that a resident curatorship has been announced, it is apparent that this program has a number of serious shortcomings and these will need to be addressed," said Tod Baseden, who organized and chairs the Jester Park Preservation Committee.

In a prepared public statement, he cited opposition to imposing historic zoning to at least the part of Jester Park where the buildings are by Special Services. "The county administration has resisted [such zoning] for a long time despite Councilman Bob Weiner's efforts to have them implement it," he said.

Such zoning would impose significant safeguards, although not an absolute provision, against altering, moving or demolishing the structures. County officials contend that it could hamper plans to eventually develop the park.

Weiner still thinks the concept is a good one, but said that the program proposal "sat on [Freebery's] desk for over a year [and] no member of the public -- especially me -- was allowed to review or comment on the program." Weiner contends that he originated the idea of emulating the program in Maryland and said he went so far as to get a dozen applicants to submit proposals to participate.

A resident curator agrees to restore and maintain an historic property and use it as a primary residence. In return, he or she and his or her spouse, are given a rent-free lease which lasts until they die, move or fail to properly maintain the property. The county retains ownership, which exempts the property from its taxes and forestalls such things as the curator willing it to heirs.

Lynn Gehouskey, who will manage the program, confirmed that the selection of who will get that role will be made by a Special Services committee, which also will include an historic planner from Land Use. Prospective applicants, she said, will have to demonstrate their interest in historic preservation, experience in property renovation and financial ability to undertake the renovation commitment.

As a result, according to the county's 'announcement', the properties will be restored "at practically no cost to the taxpayers ... [and] preserved for future generations."

Gehouskey told Delaforum that the application process will begin with 'open houses' and that it is hoped the selections can be made in time for the restorations to begin as early as spring, 2005.

She said the successful applicants will not be required to immediately move into the houses because neither is now considered fit for habitation. They will, however, have to submit a schedule for doing the work, which would include a move-in date. There is no objection to their hiring a contractor to actually do some or all of the work, she added.

In his statement, Baseden criticized Special Services general manager Joseph Freebery for not involving the public in development of the program. "There appears to have been no contact by him or his department with [private] county experts on this subject," it said.

He also criticized the idea of leaving the selection and other elements of administrating the program to an entirely internal committee "although there are many people in our county with records of public service who have high levels of expertise in the restoration and preserving of historic buildings." He added that setting up a partnership with an organization such as Preservation Delaware would work to the county's advantage.

As things now stand, Baseden said, "there is no transparency in the program; the public will be effectively excluded from knowing what is going on."


2004. All rights reserved.

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