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Open space restrictions will keep Barnes Foundation Chester County estate free from development

Ker-Feal is not on the real-estate market.

Laura and Albert Barnes at their summer home called Ker-Feal.
Laura and Albert Barnes at their summer home called Ker-Feal.Read moreFILE PHOTOGRAPH

Ker-Feal, the 137-acre Chester County property used by art collector Albert C. Barnes as a country retreat, and owned since his 1951 death by the Barnes Foundation, will have conservation easements placed on it, keeping the land open even if it is sold.

Although there are no plans to sell the property, which is in West Pikeland Township, the Barnes Foundation has worked with Natural Lands, a land conservancy based in Media, to work out an arrangement that allows for subdivision of the property into four permanently protected parcels.

Thomas Collins, head of the Barnes, said in a statement Wednesday that the purpose of the easement was to "preserve the open space and rural character of Ker-Feal in perpetuity."

A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust, such as Natural Lands, that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values.

In October, Natural Lands and the Barnes applied to West Pikeland for permission to subdivide Ker-Feal into the four parcels.

"The subdivision discussions are part and parcel of the easement process," said Jim Wendelgass, West Pikeland township manager. "This has been in the works for a very long time."

Wendelgass said that "my understanding is they have no intention to sell" any part of the property, although that could change. Wendelgass said that "the properties created" by the subdivision "are all subject to conservation easements."

In addition to the open-land restrictions, the agreement formalizes and protects the route of the Horse-Shoe Trail, a horseback riding and hiking trail that runs through Ker-Feal and on toward Harrisburg.

Charlie Humphreys, chairman of the West Pikeland Township Board of Supervisors, singled out "the work done by the West Pikeland Land Trust and Natural Lands in working toward the preservation of this special property." He said West Pikeland is particularly pleased with the preservation of Ker-Feal's open land. He lauded the agreements as a means "to keep and enhance this historic resource."

Natural Lands first approached the Barnes about the arrangement, officials at the conservancy said, well over a year ago.

In exchange for the easements, the Barnes will receive a grant of about $1.52 million, the appraised value of Ker-Feal, largely from West Pikeland and the county. Collins said the money would "provide important funding to further the Barnes Foundation's educational mission."

In a February interview, Collins said the Barnes was not thinking about selling or leasing Ker-Feal, although the foundation was embarking on an assessment of artifacts and furnishings in the Revolutionary War-era stone farmhouse.

"What I'd like to do is get through this assessment project and figure out what we have at Ker-Feal," Collins said at the time. "The question is … what pieces of [the furnishings and artifacts] do we want to present? How do we present them? What kind of resources are there, and what can we do with them in terms of public access?"

Asked whether the foundation was contemplating a sale of Ker-Feal, Collins said: "Even if we wanted to, I don't think we could." He cited legal restrictions imposed by the Barnes trust indenture that governs foundation operations.

The effort to move the Barnes and its spectacular collection of impressionist and early modern art from its longtime home in Merion to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway led to an epic legal battle that ultimately saw Montgomery County Orphans' Court overruling terms of the trust indenture in 2004.

The Barnes opened on the Parkway in 2012.

At the time of legal wrangling in Orphans' Court, opponents of the move strongly urged a sale of Ker-Feal and other Barnes properties as a means of generating funds that could  keep the cash-strapped foundation and collection in Merion. The trust indenture expressly forbade  moving the Barnes art.

The foundation opposed the idea of a Ker-Feal sale in 2003, arguing that the house and its contents were an integral part of the foundation's collection. The property should be retained and turned into a a living history museum, foundation officials said then.

The museum idea, which was floated in the midst of that turbulent court case, has quietly slipped away. But Collins wants to know what is actually in the Ker-Feal collection.

The house is not open to the public.