Historic Commission fights to save 1700s homestead from possible demolition
12/19/2017 12:56PM ● Published by Richard Gaw
Blending both information and compassion, longtime New Garden Township historian Dr. Margaret “Peg” Jones appealed to the township's Board of Supervisors on Dec. 18 to step in and attempt to save a piece of Landenberg history from a potential wrecking ball, while a representative from a leading real estate development firm offered possible solutions that could buy some time for it to be sold.
The issue is this: The Middleton Homestead sits on a 14-acre plot near the corner of Newark Road and Laurel Heights Road, and includes a house, a garage, a carriage house and a barn, speculated to have been built between 1783-1796.
It also sits on Lot 4 of an L-shaped, seven-lot subdivision currently in the planning stages by Landenberg-based Wilkinson homes, so the race has begun to explore options to keep the creation of the development on track, while also preserving the home.
Believing that the builder has not met the township's requirements for a demolition permit, Jones called upon the board to deny issuing a demolition permit to Wilkinson Homes, and advised them to uphold the intent of the Pennsylvania enabling law, the township's Historic Preservation Ordinance and the township's Comprehensive Plan for the preservation of historic resources.
Jones said that the Board of Supervisors have traditionally had “an abysmal record” of saving historic houses in the township in recent years, and then reeled off a list of homes that have been demolished, including The Thompson House, a stone structure built in 1824 that was demolished by Wilkinson Homes in 2000.
Reflecting the content of a Dec. 8 letter to the board, the Historical Commission, Jones said, proposes that the Middleton Homestead be deeded off and sold as a separate two-acre parcel, in order to attract a buyer who could invest the time and money to maintain the historic home. Fourteen acres, she said, is too large to mow and too small to farm.
“It just doesn't seem viable to anyone who would buy it the way it is presently been marketed,” Jones said. “I just don't think it will sell. It takes a while to find someone who wants to renovate an old house.
"The Commission has talked to all of the appropriate people. We've researched the home and spent a lot of time talking about alternatives, but we don't have the tools to save this house.
“All of these [historic] houses don't belong to us,” Jones told the board. “We're only stewards of the land and these houses, as long as we are here. They're not ours. They belong to all of the community. When you ask people why they moved to New Garden Township to live in some of these modern, big houses, they say they like the open fields, and the stone houses that sit on the crest of the hill. This is part of the ambiance of New Garden Township, and we need to save it. It's in your hands, gentlemen.”
The house has rehabilitation issues, including mold and asbestos, but Jones said that a recent inspection of the house revealed that it remains structurally sound.
In response to Jones' appeal, Wilkinson representative Bill Romanelli told the board that he had a discussion with the Historic Commission to find potential compromises, and told the supervisors that the builder would be willing to allow one year for the home to be sold, and if the home is not sold within that time frame, plans would then be made to demolish it. He later told Jones that the time line could possibly be stretched to a year and a half, depending on how long the subdivision takes to build.
“Lot four, where the existing home is, is set up so that the house could be subdivided, so while we're subdividing, if someone is interested in purchasing it, they could go into agreement for the home, but would have to wait for final subdivision plans are completed before settling on it,” Romanelli told the board.
The time frame that Wilkinson is offering is too short, Jones responded.
“To issue a demolition permit now, or in a few months, to give a time limit [for the sale of the house] is sounding a death knell to the house, because none of us sitting here can guarantee that we can find a market for that house,” said Jones, who said that the Middleton family wishes to see the house preserved. “By the same token, Bill [Romanelli] should not be held up in moving forward with his plans, so it seems to me that the only way we can save this house is to separate the house from that 14 acres.”
Can the eventual buyers of these properties live happily in the vicinity of a historic home? Apparently not, Romanelli told members of the Historic Commission who attended the meeting.
“I believe our buyers don't see the same value that the Historic Commission has, living next to these two houses, versus living next to homes similar to the construction of their new home,” he said. “I don't think that see the same value, from speaking to our buyers.”
The board balked at the idea of the township purchasing the home on its own. While supervisor Steve Allaband said that he would consider an adaptive re-use for the homestead, supervisor Richard Ayotte said that the township should not be in the business of real estate.
“Absolutely not. It's not the charge of a municipal government to rehab houses, at least in this township,” Ayotte said.
After further discussion with the board, Romanelli agreed to the commission's suggestion, saying that Wilkinson would purchase the 14 acres and subdivide off the two-acre lot where the Middleton home sits, and finish subdividing the remainder of the lots for the planned development.
Romanelli, township manager Tony Scheivert and township solicitor Vince Pompo will meet to discuss the Middleton Homestead on Dec. 20. No further public meetings have been scheduled.
“We're willing to talk,” Romanelli told the board. “I know that everyone thinks we're here to tear down homes, but if there's a solution that's not going to take an extra year or two years, we will consider it.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.