In a starkly divided and controversial decision, the Franklin Township Board of Supervisors has voted 3–2 to demolish Kemblesville's historic J.G. West barn.
The core of the barn was built during a period of early American history following the War of 1812 known as the Era of Good Feeling, but good feelings were in short supply on the night of Wednesday, Sept. 19 meeting of the board. The crowd of about 25 reacted with dismay as a majority of the supervisors-Chairman John Auerbach, Vice-Chairman Eric Brindle and Penny Schenk-moved to demolish the barn, rejecting a plan offered by the township's Historical Architectural Review Board (HARB) to preserve it at no cost to the township.
As in previous meetings, the main antagonists were Auerbach and Supervisor Paul Overton. Auerbach argued, as he had before, that the township-owned barn had deteriorated and posed a safety threat if anyone entered it, and the cost of rehabbing it for use as a township building ranged from $700,000 to $1 million. Auerbach said he believed the only sure source of that funding was the municipal government, and that he thought the barn could become a 'money pit' for the township.
But Overton, township-hired engineers, local and county historical-preservation officials, and township residents all sharply disagreed. Overton cited two engineers hired to assess the barn who said it was fundamentally sound. Some damage had resulted from a leaking roof, but with a new roof and some other repairs totaling an estimated $29,800, the barn could be 'stabilized,' allowing it to sit for years with no further maintenance necessary.
Overton, as in previous meetings, laid out a plan created by the Franklin HARB to raise the money privately. The HARB had already raised $9,000 he said, despite not having begun a formal fundraising effort. With another $15,000 from state grants and another $5,800 from fundraising, the money to stabilize the barn could be raised with no expense to the township.
Speaking for the HARB, Ralph Olivier said the board had disapproved the township's application for a certificate of appropriateness to demolish the barn, citing its fundamental soundness and historical significance. He said taking it down would have an 'adverse effect on the integrity of the Kemblesville Historic District.' He said the township had offered no evidence that stabilizing the barn would result in excessive costs.
Bruce Knapp, president of the Chester County Historic Preservation Network, said his group supported the HARB and the township historical commission, and opposed the demolition of the barn. 'It's something that will be lost forever,' he said. 'It still has many more years and use for your municipality in the future.'
Karen Marshall, historic preservation coordinator for Chester County, said there were legal questions about the demolition, because the HARB had asked some questions about the application that the township had not answered, and because it was unusual for applicants to be in a position to make a judgment about their own application.
Marshall's predecessor Jane Davidson also attended the meeting to oppose the demolition. She said the application should have included an in-depth study of the history of the barn, one that would consider adaptive reuse options such as using it for township offices, a library, and an auxiliary office of the county health department. 'Other townships have done it. Today it's your turn,' Davidson said. 'I really do think there is a decent solution here where all of you can be satisfied to some respect and I think the residents and the citizens will be proud of you for going through it.'
One resident said he thought it made sense to take the barn down, fearing the expense of adapting it, and another said she wanted to keep it but was also concerned about costs.
But the majority of residents at the meeting, some fifteen in all, strongly supported saving the barn. Among them was longtime Kemblesville resident C. Victor Richards. 'This barn is savable,' Richards said. 'I think that this barn should not be torn down. It's a valuable asset to the area.'
But in the end, Auerbach, Brindle and Schenk voted to demolish the barn, with Overton and Nan Latimer opposed.