Chesco wants West Chester to chip in more to save Barclay Grounds

Posted: June 14, 2014

A delicate plan to save West Chester's Barclay Grounds from development suffered a setback Thursday when the Chester County commissioners pledged just a fraction of the grant money requested, leaving a $375,000 gap.

The commissioners said they would consider giving more to preserve the land - a tree-shaded plot long used as a park - but only if the borough puts up its own cash for the project.

"This is a highly unique situation, for us to even be involved in an open-space project in the borough," said Ryan Costello, commissioners chairman. "If the borough is that interested in seeing it preserved, then the borough should be participating in the funding."

The commissioners' decision surprised those who last fall rallied to stop a developer from building four houses on the 1.3-acre plot, which is privately owned but open to the public. The effort drew wide support, with "Save the Barclay Grounds" signs dotting front lawns and more than 2,000 signatures on an online petition.

To keep the land open, the borough agreed to buy it using $1.2 million from its general fund that would be recouped through grants and donations in the future. If the funds are not secured by the end of the year, the deal will fall through.

Members of the Barclay Grounds Preservation Alliance had hoped that the county would cover a large portion of the cost and asked for a $500,000 grant. On Thursday, they received $125,000 instead.

West Chester Mayor Carolyn Comitta said Thursday that she was grateful for the commissioners' grant and understood why they wants the borough to contribute funds, too. But she said the borough shoulders other expenses that "provide a safe and clean and vibrant" home for the county government.

"It's not cold cash on the table for the property, but it has real value," she said. "And so, although I understand the commissioners' perspective on that, there is another perspective. I really don't think the borough is shirking its financial responsibility to support the project."

She said the borough council would likely discuss the issue later. In the meantime, she said, the borough will still use its own money to make a $600,000 payment to the developers by June 30, one of two deadlines under the sale agreement. The second is Dec. 31.

John Cottage, who lives across from the Barclay Grounds, said the alliance was still seeking donations and state grants. But he said the commissioners' decision would force organizers to rethink their strategy.

"Can we make up $350,000? I don't know," he said. "Are the members of the Barclay Grounds Preservation Alliance willing to put their lives aside for another six months to climb what seems like an even bigger hill? We'll need to see. We need to regroup and talk about it."

He said he hoped the borough council considered backing the project financially so the county would potentially pledge more. He said West Chester property values are dependent on the borough's reputation as a "beautiful, historic, green" place.

"Those properties all derive value from a space like the Barclay Grounds," he said. "So I think there is certainly an argument to be made for why the borough should put some money in."

610-313-8205 @TriciaNadolny

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