New Garden Township to buy and preserve 178-acre property for $2.3 million
● By Richard Gaw
After an hour-long public discussion that was both divided and accusatory, the New Garden Township Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 on Monday to enter into negotiations to purchase the 178-acre Green Valley Farm for $2.3 million, for the purpose of placing a conservation easement on it.
The acreage is currently owned in part by former supervisor Warren Reynolds, who began discussions with the township's Open Space Review Board two years ago, for the purpose of preserving the land in perpetuity.
Supervisors Steve Allaband, Betty Gordon and Richard Ayotte voted in favor of the purchase, while supervisors Pat Little and Randy Geouque voted against the purchase.
The property, eight contiguous parcels, is located north of Route 41 and is bordered by Penn Green Road on its western edge, Old Baltimore Pike on its northern border, and the area behind the commercial and residential development along Newark Road, on its eastern edge. It offers more than 30 acres of mature woodland, large ponds, streams, existing paths and scenic vistas which can be seen from Penn Green Road. It contains the former site of a dairy farm, and an historic home built in 1740, which has been in the Reynolds family since 1904.
Erin McCormick from Natural Lands Trust, the open space consultant for New Garden Township, spelled out the details of the conservation easement on the property. She said that the easement would allow for the existing residence, and up to three additional parcels that could have a residence located on them. The remainder of the property will remain available for agricultural use, and the woodland areas will remain as is.
Under the terms of the agreement, there will be no public access to the property.
The acquisition of the property will be paid for out of the township's Open Space Fund, the account balance of which stands at 2.27 million, and annually generates about $400,000 in revenue. The initial payment will comprise 37 percent of the total cost for the easement, which will be followed by the remaining 63 percent of the total cost, which will be paid in equal installments over the next three years.
Allaband read the list of owners of the property, which included members of the Reynolds family and others.
After the terms of the agreement were shared, the supervisors engaged in a back-and-forth conversation of differing opinions, most of which argued for the need to conserve valuable property in the township, and the cost of doing so.
"The Reynolds family is known as staunch open space conservationists, and Warren Reynolds has actually been on the record for saying that his property will never get developed," said Geouque said. "Then why would we spend $2.3 million on low-risk property?"
"This is a mechanism of how this generation would keep future generations from development," Allaband answered.
"But if [Reynolds is] already on record saying that he'll never do it...At some point if he got into financial distress and needed the money...I strongly believe that he would approach the board again and say, 'You know what? I need some money. I'm going to sell it to a developer unless you guys want to step in and buy the development rights.'"
"As I read the list of parcels, Warren Reynolds is a little bit less than a fifty percent owner," Allaband replied. "Being a fifty percent owner or less, how can we guarantee [that Reynolds would not sell to a real estate developer] unless you put this [agreement] in place?"
Geouque then disputed the validity of spending over $2 million on property that will have no public access. According to a representative of Reynolds, the notion of providing public access to the property has not been factored into the terms of the agreement.
In a rebuttal to Geouque, Ayotte said that the Open Space Fund is not intended to create parks and trails.
"It's a fund to preserve open space," he said. "Secondly, this open space tax has been around for ten years, and just about nothing has been done with it. That should tell you that landowners aren't lining up to give away their development rights. The number one stumbling block to secure open space is a willing landowner, and we have the largest tract of land in the township willing to give up its development rights."
Little argued against the transaction, mostly from a financial point of view.
"Our expenses are going up and our property tax base is going down," Little said. "Using rough numbers, we have had a 30 percent drop of employees in the township than [we had] last year. That means lower employee tax base. In my opinion, this is headache at the beginning of the year, because I don't see how we can get by without a tax hike."
"It seems to me that we are trying to befriend Mr. Reynolds to the tune of $2.3 million," Little added. "While this may be an honorable thing to do, I'm not sure it's something that the residents of this township should provide."
Gordon said that she has known Reynolds for the past seven or eight years, and during that time, "it was always near and dear to his heart to have the rights of his property sold to the township," she said. "Warren has responsibilities to his family. A lot of this land is held in trust, and the trustees have an obligation to preserve the funds in order to take care of Warren's affairs and the heirs of his parents and grandparents...He has to protect those who follow him and that's what he's trying to do. If the development rights are not purchased by the township, we have no way to guess what his heirs might decide to do with the property, should something happen to Warren."
If there was a proverbial elephant in the room, it was that the most prominently-known landowner was not present during the proceedings. Shortly after resigning his position on the board, Reynolds was arrested on June 12, 2013 for the possession of more than 500 images of child pornography. In March 2014, Reynolds pleaded guilty to five counts of sexual abuse of children – the official term used to define the possession of child pornography – and in September 2014, he began a state prison sentence that will extend from a minimum of two years to a maximum of four years.
A long-time member of the board, Reynolds had served with both Gordon and Allaband at various times, a point Geouque suggested may have stacked the acquisition in Reynolds' favor. He called for Gordon and Allaband to recuse themselves from the voting process. The request was turned down by solicitor Mark Thompson.
"In my opinion, this transaction reflects poorly on the board," he said. "Two board members not only have served with Warren in the past, but are known friends of his. In my opinion, it looks like cronyism, and maybe a conflict of interest."
During the public comment period, Geouque further supported his earlier accusation.
"From my point of view, it looks like we're taking care of a former supervisor, by agreeing to take care of a former supervisor," he said. "When I say 'cronyism,' I say from the perception of the entire board. It's not necessarily levied at any particular individuals. I only brought that up as a point that they served on a previous board with him and are long-time friends and should recuse themselves."
After a half-hour private session, the board re-convened, and rendered their final decision at 8:25 p.m.
In other township news, the board honored New Garden Township Police Chief Gerald Simpson for his recent recognition by the Chester County District Attorney's office as the 2014 Chester County Officer of the Year.
Simpson gave the supervisors an update on the status of the preliminary plans to establish a regional police unit in southern Chester County, a concept that has already been the subject of a feasibility study. Simpson said that the potential partnership in the force has grown from four interested municipal parties to seven, which now include the West Grove Borough, the Avondale Borough, the East Marlborough Township, as well as London Grove Township and the police departments for New Garden Township Kennett Township and the Kennett Borough.
Simpson said that a meeting inviting all interested parties has been scheduled for Feb. 28 to continue discussions about the concept.
Simpson also said that a law enforcement appreciation day will be held on May 16 at the township building, which will include participation activities, workshops and displays.
The board approved a motion to grant preliminary and final land grant approval and modifications to the construction of new hangars at the New Garden Flying Field.
The board also approved the acquisition of a Ford 550 vehicle for the township's Public Works Department, for a price not to exceed $80,000. The board also approved the acquisition of two police vehicles for the township's Police Department, for a total cost not to exceed $73,100.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.