WEST CHESTER Developers with plans to build luxury homes on a park cherished by many and a group opposing their project appeared Wednesday night to have struck an unanticipated deal to preserve the land.
Under the proposed agreement, West Chester Borough would purchase the 1.3-acre Barclay Grounds in installments over the next year using grant funds it anticipates securing in 2014.
The complex maneuver could preserve the property, which has come under the threat of development several times in the last 50 years, indefinitely as a borough-owned park.
"Everybody's hearts and heads are in the right place and in the same place," Mayor Carolyn Comitta said after Wednesday night's standing-room-only Borough Council meeting. "All the main players want to see the park preserved."
The Barclay Grounds, a plot of towering trees in front of an estate house in the heart of the borough, is privately owned but has served as a public park for decades. In February, local developer StanAb L.P. purchased the land, and proposed tearing down many of the 130-year-old trees and building four homes.
Outraged residents formed the Barclay Grounds Preservation Alliance and began trying to raise the more than $1 million needed to purchase the land. In September, the group persuaded the Borough Council to consider seizing the land by eminent domain.
The council met Wednesday to debate that proposal, which had stirred mixed reactions. Instead, it voted to enter negotiations to purchase the land.
Under the sale agreement proposed by StanAb's attorney Wednesday, the borough would need to make a $20,000 nonrefundable down payment by the end of the year. The other two payments of about $600,000 each would be delayed, one until the end of June 2014 and the other until the end of December 2014.
Representatives of the Brandywine Conservancy and the Natural Lands Trust, as well as State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester), said Wednesday that while state and county grant funding was not guaranteed, they anticipate the applications would be approved in time to make those payments.
"This is something so special, so unique, that we really need to take the chances that we as public officials often have to do to make things happen," Dinniman said.
If the grants are not approved and the payments to StanAb cannot be made through other means, the proposed development would move forward, the group's attorney, Don Turner, said.
"It is virtually without risk or expense. . . . If [the borough] receives the money, it buys the lots. It preserves it," Turner said. "If it doesn't receive the money, then at some point, despite the fact that we all tried, the property is going to end up being subdivided and developed."
Some of the more than 100 residents in attendance still had concerns, specifically with how the park would be maintained. Borough Council President Holly Brown said that cost would be about $20,000 in the first year and potentially less in the future.
"Now it's great we can do this for, quote, no money. Which I've heard before," resident Gordon Woodrow said. "But I know one thing: There is a guaranteed cost every year to operate it, and you don't have the money to do that either."
Turner stressed Wednesday that a sale agreement has to be negotiated by the end of the year.