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July  16,  2007

Historic properties may
get resident curators

An historic-conservation idea that has been languishing in the innersanctum of county government for at least eight years may soon be started on the road to fruition.

The Department of Special Services, the county's public works and parks agency, has quietly been working on a plan to attract private individuals and interests to rehabilitate, reopen and maintain currently idle houses and other structures on county parkland deemed to have historic significance.

That came to light when County Council, unanimously and with minimal discussion, recently enacted a resolution "endorsing" development of a resident-curator program. Councilman David Tackett, primary sponsor of the resolution, said the program is intended to provide a way to save the structures known as the Hermitage in Glasgow regional park, off Pulaski Highway in Pencader Hundred, without putting additional strain on the county treasury.

His colleague Robert Weiner, who joined as a co-sponsor of the resolution, said the current approach is a renewal of the proposal advanced in 2002 as a way to save the farmhouse and barn in undeveloped Jester Park off Grubb Road in Brandywine Hundred.

The resolution enacted on June 26 also lists the Ivyside house in Bechtel Park, off Naamans Road; the Talley house in Talley-Day Park, off Foulk Road; and the Woodstock House, off Middleboro Road near

Historic houses in Jester Park (left) and Bechtel Park apparently would likely  be included in a county resident curator program.

Banning Park in Woodcrest as "good candidates" for inclusion in the program.

It does not, however, provide any details about the program or how it would work. Neither the department nor County Executive Christopher Coons's office had responded as this article was being prepared to several Delafourm requests for that information since the resolution was enacted.

The resolution also was co-sponsored by John Cartier and Joseph Reda, in whose districts Ivyside and Woodstock, respectively, are located.

Weiner said he believes the expression of endorsement provided by the resolution is considered tantamount to Council approval to proceed with a plan. In any event, any curator contract would require specific Council ratification, he said.

At the time Jester Park was involved in a dispute over whether it should be developed for active or passive recreation, Weiner again proposed to the then Thomas Gordon administration that a resident-curator plan which had proven successful in Maryland be used as a model for such a venture in New Castle County. Weiner said he first raised the possibility in 1999.

Under that arrangement an individual or family which agreed to rehabilitate an historic property and live there could do so rent- and tax-free for as long as the house was properly maintained at their expense. The 'loss' incurred from the incentives would be more than offset by the 'savings' from the government not having to care for the property.

Weiner, who did not enjoy good political rapport with the Gordon administration, later charged that then chief administrative officer Sherry Freebery tucked the proposal away in her desk drawer. When it was finally brought out, he told Delaforum during an interview for this article, it was "flawed." The plan that emerged did not require the lessee to make the property available to the public on at least some occasions and provided for selection of curators to be made by a committee of government officials and employees without any public participation.

Tackett's resolution specifies in its preamble that the curator "be required to hold open houses twice a year for the public." It also calls for establishing a selection committee which would include the Council member representing the district in which the property is located and, "if so desired by the Council member," an area resident.

Weiner said that current thinking would permit an historic structure in an appropriate location to be used for other than a residence. Possible 'adaptive reuses' would be such things as a restaurant or a bed-and-breakfast inn, he said.

Ivyside, for instance, would be appropriate because it fronts directly on a Naamans Road, a major highway. The Jester house, on the other hand, is well off Grubb Road and accessible by a narrow unpaved lane.

Jester Park is still undeveloped. A pasture there has, for several years, been leased to Hy Point Dairy for grazing cows.

Tackett said he was unaware of what had happened elsewhere in the county, but has been separately pursuing something like the resident curator idea since being elected to the expanded Council  in 2004. "I met with a lady from Newark within the first month [of taking office] when [former County Councilwoman] Karen Venezky and she laid out a detailed plan of how she would propose rebuilding the site and [using] it," he said.

Since passage of his resolution, he said, his office has heard from "about two dozen interested applicants."

He added that he expected the special services department to put out public requests for proposals soon and that he is requesting that it hold a public informational meeting before the deadline for receipt of the proposals.

Department of Land Use property records list the Hermitage as dating from 1857, the Jester house from 1850, Ivyside from 1753 and Woodstock, from 1704. Those dates apparently refer to the oldest part of the respective structures. No date is attached to the Talley house.

Tackett said he felt that "if nothing [is] done they would soon be gone and only words would be left to describe what once was there."

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