Pocopson supervisors, Barn officials make their cases

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Crowded meeting hears both sides, no resolution reached

By Kelli Siehl, Staff Writer, The Times

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A large crowd of local residents, supports for The Farm at Spring Brook, and media converged on the gym at Pocopson Elementary School Monday night, where the Pocopson Board of Supervisors met — moving the meeting from its normal location at the Township Building.

POCOPSON — The auditorium at Pocopson Elementary School was filled with township residents, Barn at Spring Brook Farm supporters and reporters of local and Philadelphia news sources during Monday night’s Board of Supervisors’ meeting, but those hoping for a fight between officials from Pocopson Township and The Barn at Spring Brook Farm were sorely disappointed.

In fact, each side cordially acknowledged the other – Supervisor Barney Leonard said he and his fellow supervisors agreed with the mission of The Barn and expressed wishes for the facility to succeed. The Barn’s attorney, Robert Adams, thanked supervisors for their offer of praise for the facility and for their patience and understanding in the matter.

Supervisors’ Chair, Ricki Stumpo, gave a chronological history of the events which brought the parties to this point, reminding those in attendance that the Township Supervisors operate under “the same strict guidelines set by Pennsylvania State Law.” She said despite The Barn’s “wonderful and noble activity” to help children with special needs, the focus of this issue is based on legal aspects of land use and zoning; “our job is to manage the needs of all residents” with regard to the growing enterprise in a residential area.

Township Solicitor Anthony Verwey gave a brief explanation of township, state, and federal laws and regulations pertaining to this case. He explained that The Barn is not located in a zone which allows for its current operation, so The Barn had to file for a variance in order to do something other than what is permitted in this zone. The Barn applied for conditional use; in this case an educational use. There was a hearing and the barn established that it had a right for a conditional use and supervisors added conditions.

Verwey said the decision was rendered in December 2013 and The Barn did not appeal within the allotted 30-day period. Because state and federal laws are involved, he said, the township Board of Supervisors is not legally permitted to change their decision.

Supervisor Georgia Brutscher then addressed horseback riding and birthday parties – two hot button issues being debated in social and print media. Brutscher said the Board of Supervisors excluded horseback riding to prevent expansion of the program in both size and scope. She said officials based their decision on to testimony given during the conditional use hearing which noted significant growth since the program’s inception.

As for birthday parties, “which has caused great emotional distress” Brutscher said, “the Board of Supervisors is perfectly willing to have an individual child celebrate his/her birthday at The Barn during the child’s regularly scheduled session.” She noted the Barn’s Executive Director, Dan Stark, requested birthday parties for paid members of a newly formed Barn Club have the option to host a separate birthday event at the facility on Saturday or Sunday, outside of normal programming. Brutscher said one of the conditional use rulings clearly states that other than the three student social events and large, yearly fundraiser, no other fundraising or social events are allowed on the property in order to minimize the impact of educational activities in a residential-agricultural zone.

Stumpo wrapped up the Township’s presentation by commenting that “residents and supervisors have been vilified online, in the press and in private.” She added that everyone involved will benefit by working together for the children with special needs.

The Barn’s attorney, Adams, faced the Board of Supervisors and explained that The Barn had been operating “under the nose” of the township for six years and thought it was OK. He clarified that The Barn had never sought permits or operated under the guise of a home based occupation. “It’s factual we did not take an appeal,” he said, and “did not feel Pocopson Township did anything illegal.”

He told supervisors “we want to make it very clear to you that it was not The Barn’s doing that created {this} public outcry, or created this number of people here tonight.” He explained that the outpouring came after a letter was written to The Barn’s supporters, donors, and volunteers announcing “that we were going out of business after summer camp because we were unable to comply with the conditions imposed” or ensure viability of the operations of The Barn. “What this does show,” he said, “is there’s a great deal of sensitivity in this community – and beyond this community – to the good work that the barn does and you have said tonight, to your great credit, that you recognize that.”

Adams told officials that The Barn recognized that the Board of Supervisors are bound by the law and understood there would be no relief offered at the meeting. He said The Barn officials are aware of the burden falls on them to file an application to justify relaxation of the conditions and provide reasons why. Prior to leaving the podium, Adams asked officials to “keep your minds open, because if we can’t get some of the relief from the board, the decision will be ratified to cease operations.”

The Executive Director of The Barn, Dan Stark, followed Adams’ presentation, and said The Barn tried to “mend fences” with a neighbor by changing the location of summer camp and event parking without success, forcing The Barn to apply for conditional use. He outlined The Barn at Spring Brook Farms’ attempt to gather information and pricing to comply with conditions outlined in the conditional use agreement and their Board of Directors’ realization that the cost to come into compliance was prohibitive. “At that point we made the decision to contact our families, our supporters and volunteers that we were ceasing operations,” he said, “we were not closing – we were ceasing operations in the hopes that we would find a solution to begin operations again in the future.”

Stark said the outpouring of donations and pro-bono services from contractors has given hope to The Barn’s future. He said a “nagging concern,” however, is whether the sizable investment to come into compliance with conditions and continue operations would be sustainable over 3-5 years.

He said The Barn is not looking to grow into a large organization and realizes it will reach its capacity in the future and at that time look for alternatives – whether through partnerships, a satellite facility or a whole new location. For now, he said, the Board of Directors looked at the restrictions placed on The Barn which put the organization in the most danger and what the organization needed to provide sustainability for that 3-5 year period. From last week’s Board of Director’s meeting, Stark said, came the realization that after the public spotlight goes away, and the story fades from the headlines, “how are we going to be able to raise funds through grants, fundraisers and organizations?” Stark said in order to obtain grant money and private funding, the facility has to show a potential for growth and with the restrictions placed upon the number of children being served through visitation and summer camp, it becomes difficult to convince funders to give monetary support.

Stark said The Barn wants to reopen the conditional use application and is asking for increases in the areas of:

one-on-one visitation – one hour visitation during the spring (March, April, May) and fall (September, October, November) from 12-6pm instead of 2-6pm, not to exceed 3 children per hour (18 instead of 10 children per day.)

Summer Camp – increase the number of campers for the six weeks of summer camp, during the hours of 9am-2pm, to a maximum of 24 campers instead of 16 campers per day.

Fundraisers – currently the condition allows one large fundraiser per year between 6-10pm with a maximum of 150 participants. It does not allow a temporary structure for guests but allows a small tent for the caterer. The Barn at Spring Brook Farm recommends changing this to allow three fundraisers annually without restrictions.

Socialization Events – currently there is one student social event, per term (spring, summer, and fall) on a Saturday afternoon from noon-3pm for a maximum of 60 participants at each event and the fall term event may not be held in the same month as the large yearly fundraiser. The Barn’s recommendation removes the limit on participants and the fall term restriction on the social even and fundraiser being held in the same month.

Currently other than the three student social events and the large fundraiser (Hoe Down), there shall be no other fundraising or social events on the property. The Barn recommends striking this sentence and adding the heading “Tours” – from time to time The Barn may invite potential donors to the property to conduct tours of the facility.

Currently There shall be no birthday parties, holiday parties, graduation parties, religious celebrations or similar activities as part of The Barn’s educational activities. The Barn recommends striking the sentence and in its place instead The Barn may offer the families of children enrolled in its programs the opportunity to celebrate their child’s birthday at the facility.

The Barn also asked to be allowed to increase the footprint of the barn structure to construct a small structure for housing bathroom facilities at the rear of the structure and improvements to the parking lot to install handicapped parking spaces.

Stark concluded The Barn’s presentation by telling Supervisors The Barn is moving forward “in good faith” and is prepared to make the presentation to flush out areas of relief.

The remaining 30 minutes of the meeting were reserved for public comment with Pocopson residents speaking first. Supervisors and The Barn officials heard from 13 Pocopson Township residents who expressed concern for The Barn participants’ safety, liability concerns over The Barn’s not being in compliance with conditions, accolades for the Pocopson Board of Supervisors handling of the situation, accusations of illegal activity and favoritism by Supervisors, requests that officials ease restrictions for The Barn, questions about how the issue came to be in the first place, “seems like the increase in numbers is just huge” regarding recommendations to allow increases in The Barn participants, a Change.org petition with over 6,000 concerned citizens to keep The Barn open until March 2015. The last speaker of the evening urged officials to work together in order to reach a compromise.





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One Comment

  1. Carol Haaf says:

    Thanks for the accurate report on the meeting. This is what our community needs as everyone works on resolving the issues.

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