Pocopson supervisors close farm that helped kids

Photo by Fran Maye Dan Stark (left) holds a copy of the Pocopson supervisors' decision mandating 33 conditions that must be met for the Barn at Spring Brook Farm to continue operations. At center is Glen Reyburn, president of the board of directors, and Mary Beth Drobish, founder. The miniature pony is popular with the disabled children who visit.
Photo by Fran Maye The Barn at Spring Brook Farm in Pocopson Township sits on 13 acres of pristine farmland and is a popular destination for disabled children for events like birthdays and summer camp. It will close Sept. 1 because of a neighbor's concern about noise and traffic.

By FRAN MAYE

fmaye@21st-centurymedia.com

A facility that provides animal-assisted activities for children with disabilities will close Sept. 1 due to a zoning dispute.

The non-profit Barn at Spring Brook Farm off Locust Grove, which sits on 13 acres and includes open space, gardens and nature trails, will close because it will cost up to $100,000 to make improvements set forth in conditions imposed by township supervisors.

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It all started more than a year and a half ago when the barns neighbor to the north, Bev Bruns, complained about noise and traffic at the facility, according to Dan Stark, executive director of the Barn at Spring Brook. Richard Jensen, township codes enforcer, inspected the property and found violations of township ordinances.

By the end of 2013, township supervisors gave the facility a May 30 deadline to meet 33 conditions to continue operations. After gaining a three-month extension, the supervisors said all operations must cease at the barn by Sept. 1 if conditions set forth by township officials are not made.

Some of those conditions, Stark said, are petty.

One includes the stipulation that children cannot ride the farm animals. For the past eight years, handicapped children have enjoyed interacting with animals such as miniature horses, donkeys, sheep, rabbits, and goats. Another stipulates that there may be no birthday parties, holiday parties, graduation parties, religious celebrations or similar activities.

Yet another stipulates that one of the side doors at the barn must be raised to accommodate a higher ceiling height for emergency exit. However, the nearby barn door is not only more accessible, but extremely wide with both doors open.

Another is the requirement of installation of a stockade fence at the north end of the property which borders the Bruns residence. At about 325 feet, it would cost about $10,000 to install.

And perhaps the biggest stipulation of all, Stark said, is the requirement of only one fundraiser per year. The Barn always had two fundraising events at the facility -- one in the spring and a hoedown in the fall -- that typically attract about 150 people.

We have a limited ability to raise funds, Stark said. People need to be here to see this place and talk about its benefits. Moving it off site wont work.

Heather Carlino, a volunteer at The Barn at Spring Brook, said the supervisors should favor the needs of the many over the concern of one neighbor.

This is a tragedy this is happining, and all over one neighbors complaint, she said. This decision is unacceptable. We can bring the supervisors 100 kids in wheelchairs and show them what a disservice they are doing. Hundreds of disabled children will be denied this experience (at the Barn). Its just terrible.

Mary Beth Drobish, founder and board member, thinks the supervisors are favoring the concerns of one neighbor rather than the greater good that The Barn provides to handicapped children.

I dont think the word children has ever come up with the supervisors, she said during an interview at The Barn, choking back tears. I feel this has become personal. The supervisors were elected to promote and protect the good in this community.

They are telling me we cant have a child celebrate their birthday here at The Barn. Weve been celebrating birthdays here for eight years. Do they think the community of Pocopson will be better off if handicapped children cant celebrate their birthdays?

Drobish, who openly admits her life is dedicated to helping special needs children, said she is especially saddened that one of the conditions deals with children not being allowed to ride the farm animals.

Anyone in this township can give horseback lessons without having to (get a permit) she said. What difference does it make to them? We just have baby horses. You can tell me when I can be open, you can tell me how many kids I can have here, you can even tell me the hours of operation. But you cant tell me a kid cant celebrate his birthday and ride a small pony.

All three Pocopson supervisors, Ricki Stumpo, Georgia Brutscher and Barney Leonard, as well as Jensen, declined to answer specific questions about the conditional use decision. Some of the questions asked why children were being denied the ability to ride horses, why they were eliminating a major fundraiser, and why did supervisors decline a request to install a temporary fence (as township code permits). Supervisors also declined to say whether any of them know Bruns personally or professionally. Instead, a joint statement was issued to this newspaper, which stated:

Pocopson Township is supportive of the mission statement of the Barn at Spring Brook Farm. It is for this reason, that many months of hard work by Pocopsons elected officials, staff and volunteers, at considerable taxpayer expense, granted an educational conditional use decision for the Barn at Spring Book Farm. The township gave six months notice for the Barn to come into compliance with all state and local building mandates as well as the provisions of the International Building Code. An extension to complete work was granted given the repercussions of operating outside the building codes. Over these months, the Barn had ample opportunity to work with township officials so that together, The Barn could succeed in fulfilling their mission to the children safely.

Drobish said she is shocked supervisors would make a decision that likely will put The Barn out of business without visiting the property. All three supervisors were given a personal invitation, but declined, she said.

Stark said The Barn has taken a number of steps to alleviate the problem with the neighbor, including moving all parking to the south of the tree line (not visible from the Bruns residence), and moving the camp further south.

Stark said he has no problem with many of the changes supervisors are asking for, including installation of handicapped ramps, installing a new bathroom facility and other access issues.

Were a non-profit organization, he said. Its not like we have a pot of money we can tap into. Its almost as if they dont understand that what they are asking us to do will cost us so much money, and it takes time to get done. We would consider the changes if we had a reasonable time to comply with the changes needed, and we would be able to talk to funders to ask for help.

The math, he said, simply does not add up, and its the reason the board of directors voted to cease all operations Sept. 1.

The Barn has an operating budget of $350,000. About one third of their budget would need to go toward the project, and Stark said there is simply not enough cash to complete the 33 conditions. A capital campaign -- where funds would be solicited from the community -- would take time to set up and the supervisors set a deadline that would not accommodate it.

The Barn at Spring Broom Farm is the recipient of many community initiatives, including the Kennett Run and the Mushroom Festival. The board of directors did not apply for funds this year because of the possibility of closure.

They made it so difficult to comply with the conditional use they (supervisors) knew we would end up having to close in the end, Stark said. Even the fence seems ridiculous because we took everything away from that area.

Stark made it clear the board is not dissolving the non-profit.

We are ceasing operations while we consider options for partnership or a new location, he said. We believe that is a steep hill to climb. Mary Beth built this place just for this purpose. We would consider changes if we had a reasonable time to comply with the changes needed, and we would be able to talk to our funders and ask for help.

Ironically, the supervisors set stricter guidelines than even the planning commission recommended. The Barn can operate from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. and have no more than three kids in a given hour, with a maximum of 50 kids per week. There can be six weeks of camp with a maximum of 16 kids per week, and a total of 96 kids in the summer.

The Barn at Spring Brook Farm officials said they are fine with those restrictions. But taking away one fundraiser per year that would attract 100 people is a very big deal.

Stark said the ruling is punitive.

There are people who own barn all over Chester County, and in Pocopson, and who have parties all the time, Stark said. Its no different if Mary Beth had a wedding here, or throws a barn party. To say to us you can only use that barn one time per year for an event seems arbitrary to us compared to what other people in the township are able to do.

Stark said the decision will not be appealed to Common Pleas Court. He said if supervisors dont give the time needed to make the changes, the Barn must close.

And Glen Reyburn, president of the board of directors at The Barn, said the real losers will be the handicapped children.

What the supervisors dont realize is these people have few options where they can take their children, she said. They need constant attention and oversight. A lot of these kids never get to come out in the country unless they are here.

Said Stark: This is something that is loved by the community. Even the Boy Scouts do their Eagle Scout projects here.

The next meeting of Pocopson supervisors will be June 23 at 7:30 p.m. The public is invited.

PULLQUOTE

They are telling me we cant have a child celebrate their birthday here at The Barn. Weve been celebrating birthdays here for eight years. Do they think the community of Pocopson will be better off if handicapped children cant celebrate their birthdays?

-Mary Beth Drobish

-Founder, Barn at Spring Brook