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Lease may be the most state will do for Bucks wildflower preserve

At the state-owned Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve in Bucks County, the deed is not done. Indeed, it now appears that the deed to the 137-acre preserve - part of Washington Crossing Historic Park - may never change hands.

At the state-owned Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve in Bucks County, the deed is not done.

Indeed, it now appears that the deed to the 137-acre preserve - part of Washington Crossing Historic Park - may never change hands.

Howls of protest over a state bill to transfer the property to a private, nonprofit group have seen to that.

Instead, cash-strapped state officials say, a 99-year lease may be the more palatable outcome of the ongoing Battle of Bowman's Hill.

A long-term lease would enable the Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve Association to continue to operate and improve, but not own, the site it has run for many years.

"I know we have spoken with them and they are looking at a 99-year lease as another possibility," said Barbara Franco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). "I think it is in the process, but I don't think it's there yet."

While the association still prefers outright ownership of the preserve, "we have to be aware of what the political landscape is," said Miles Arnott, executive director of the preserve. "A 99-year lease might be an acceptable alternative if certain conditions are met."

Those conditions, he said, would include the state's making long-needed repairs to the site's infrastructure.

Since 1997, the association has had an agreement with the PHMC to operate and maintain the site, short of major capital repairs. The nonprofit, which raises a $750,000 annual budget, hopes to replace the preserve's aging visitor center and make other improvements, such as a treetop canopy walk across the Pidcock Creek gorge.

The park honors the December 1776 encampment and the daring Christmas crossing of the Delaware River in 1776 by George Washington's Continental Army. The ensuing rout of Hessian troops at the Battle of Trenton is seen by some as a turning point in the Revolutionary War.

For several years, the association has sought to have the state deed over the preserve, saying ownership would enhance its fund-raising efforts.

In April, by a 193-1 vote, the Pennsylvania House passed a bill sponsored by local State Rep. Bernie O'Neill (R., Bucks) to transfer the deed to the association for $1.

When local opponents got wind of the legislation, they staged protests and started a petition drive to dash the law.

Critics say the bill never specified that it was deeding over a portion of Washington Crossing Historic Park. O'Neill has said that he didn't realize the wildflower preserve was part of the 500-plus-acre park.

State Sen. Chuck McIlhinney (R., Bucks) has since put the brakes on the bill, stalling it in his State Government Committee.

"At this time, there is no plan for a public hearing or to run the bill," McIlhinney said. "I'm expecting them to come back and say that they've worked out a deal with the lease, and that everybody is happy."

The deed-transfer bill apparently took some members of the PHMC board by surprise as well. State Sen. Jim Ferlo (D., Allegheny) said he didn't realize what was in the House bill until the PHMC's last board meeting in June.

"All of a sudden there are a bunch of people in this room wanting to speak to us, and there was this growing anger or angst over this pending action," Ferlo recalled last week. "I'm not opposed to creative partnerships, but it should never involve divesting or giving up land or anything we have been entrusted with by the public."

Philadelphia businessman Wayne Spilove, chairman of the PHMC board, has also voiced opposition to signing over the deed.

"I feel very strongly about leasing it, rather than deeding it over," Spilove said in June. "I feel that this treasure should always remain the property of the citizens of Pennsylvania."

At the same time, PHMC has seen its budget severely cut in recent years, to the point of laying off one-third of its workers and ending programming at many of its 20 historic sites. A number of nonprofit, mostly volunteer groups have tried to fill in the gaps to keep the sites open.

Franco said that PHMC has, over several decades, deeded or leased many other historic properties to governments, nonprofits, and educational institutions. All included protective clauses returning ownership to the state if the owners tried to change the use of the properties.

Critics of the proposed Bowman's Hill transfer argue that such clauses are not enforceable.

If a long-term lease of Bowman's Hill is negotiated, Franco said, it would still require legislative approval.

"We have discussed a lease with the elected officials, and we have also said to the Bowman's Hill people that we would be open to that," Franco said. "It's up to that community to decide which is the best way to go."