KURC lease on Barnard House questioned

Underground Railroad threatens to walk away from lease with Pocopson

By Karen Cresta, Staff Writer, The Times


First floor plans for the Barnard House in Pocopson, which continues to be the subject of controversy.

POCOPSON – The Barnard House continued to be the topic of discussion at Pocopson Township’s board of supervisors’ meeting on Monday night, focusing on the validity of the 2014 five-year lease (negotiated down from the original 15-years) with the Kennett Underground Railroad Center (KURC).

On July 11, at a previous township meeting, John O’Neal, a representative of the KURC and board president, threatened to renege on the agreement after he questioned the plans for the rest of the building such as access to the kitchen and meeting room. He also wanted to know if the steering committee would be reinstated.

At the request of the board, O’Neal put his concerns in a letter, but the board did not respond as of yet since the letter was received just three days prior to the meeting.

Randy Mims, a resident of Pocopson and member of the Historical Committee, counter-attacked O’Neal’s threat by stating his own concerns in a letter he read to the board citing his reasons on why the lease many not be valid and considered breached.

Mims read, “The Barnard House debacle has been dragging on for eight years, ever since it was foisted onto our community through a one-sided transaction with the County which mandates it being a liability for our township ad infinitum. When it was “sold” to us by the County, it came with an incredibly onerous list of restrictions. It can never be sold, cannot be rented, and it can never be used for commercial purposes. It is a liability that must be maintained forever. The deed restrictions could easily be read to mean that the township is not allowed to rent a portion to KURC.”

Mims continued to make his point regarding the 2014 lease agreement as questionable as he said that seven (and maybe all) of the 13 members of the Barnard Steering Committee were not residents of the township and four were also members of the KURC, and the project manager and the architect (also non-residents) had “direct financial stakes in the course of the Barnard House project.”

“And as we unfortunately recall, the project manager was also employed by the township as the Zoning Enforcement Officer and held building inspector responsibilities,” Mims stated.

Mims continued to read from his letter. “It was this group that formulated the use agreement between KURC and the township, even though four members also had seats at the other side of the negotiating table. The terms of the use agreement are…amazing. KURC receives the use of approximately 697 square feet of space. In exchange KURC pays the township $1 a year, for five years, plus utilities. But, KURC’s utility costs are capped at $100 a year for the first three years. However, as part of the deal, KURC also committed to pay $30,000 toward the $250,000 matching grant. Those monies were never paid.”

The lease agreement reads, “KURC has agreed to provide $30,000 toward the Grant Project and the Township shall contribute $50,000 toward the Grant Project…KURC shall be permitted to use the Leased Premises and the Shared Premises when the Occupancy work associated with the Grant Project has been completed and approved by the Township Building Inspector, adequate security systems are installed and other changes required to provide for the safety of participants and the Building have been completed.”

The installation of the $19,000 security system began the very same day of the township meeting, according to Public Works Director Mark Knightly. Mims mentioned, in his letter, that he was not in agreement with the supervisors to install the security system since KURC did not meet its own obligations but he commended the township on keeping its commitments nonetheless.

Chairwoman Ricki Stumpo questioned O’Neal if any monies had been paid back to the township toward the renovation portion it planned to occupy and use. O’Neal said he thought that the KURC paid for carpeting and paint. He also added that the $30,000 was not paid but the money was there. Stumpo said that she would need to check with the township treasurer for the status of invoices.

“I’m shocked,” said Stumpo.

Mims suggested in his letter since the grant has been closed and the obligated $30,000 was not matched, KURC breached the agreement and it would be mutually beneficial for both parties to seek council and draw up a new lease that was more inclusive and detailed and less ambiguous and generous. He also suggested that a committee of residents be commissioned to “objectively research possible courses of action concerning the Barnard House (including transfer of the building to the KURC) so that the Supervisors’ time can be conserved for use on other township business.” Another recommendation was to initiate discussions concerning the takeover of the building by KURC and hence relieving Pocopson Township of the liabilities and to “get it to a group that can use it and preserve it” such as KURC.

Stumpo and Supervisor Elaine DiMonte agreed that the 2014 lease needed more review along with O’Neal’s letter of (Supervisor Alice Balsama was not in attendance.)

The next township meeting will be held on August 15 and the only meeting for the month. For meeting minutes and agendas, please visit the township website at www.pocopson.org.

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