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Newtown Borough sets sights on Bird-in-Hand land

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At the front of the property at 111 South State St. is The Bird-in-Hand, one of Newtown Borough’s historical gems. Built by one of the first settlers, Shadrack Walley, more than 330 years ago, it is said to be the oldest frame structure in Pennsylvania.

The building on the State Street side was known as the Old Frame House until 1817 when artist Edward Hicks painted a sign representing Benjamin Franklin’s adage, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Since then, the building has been known as The Bird-in-Hand.

According to the Newtown Historic Association, Edward Barnsley rescued the structure from extinction in 1937 after a Philadelphia oil company wanted to demolish it to build a gas station.

For the next two years, Barnsley painstakingly restored to its original condition what is reported to be the first tavern and later, the first post office in Newtown. Since then, the association says this property has been the centerpiece of a town that pre-dates the American Revolution.

Subdivided by owners Jonathan and Mary Elizabeth Hunt last year, the real estate is currently at the center of a controversy that pits the Hunts’ property rights against the borough’s attempts at retaining the historical integrity of a land parcel that was once part of the first six squares that comprised the original layout of the borough.

Situated at the corner of Mercer Street, the property was the site of a Loyalist Raid in 1778 that sought to stop the production of uniforms meant for distribution to Colonial troops camped at Valley Forge. Known as the Newtown Skirmish, the battle was said to be the only Revolutionary War action that took place in the borough.

The battle that is taking shape between both sides could wind up in a Bucks County courthouse.

The borough fired the first shot Nov. 27 when it unanimously approved a resolution that gives it the power to condemn the property and acquire it via eminent domain if it cannot come to an agreement of sale with the Hunts. The borough also has its sights set on an easement – meant to provide parking for the residents of the State Street dwelling – that was granted at the time of the subdivision.

“I never wanted it to come to this,” said Councilor Nicole Rodowicz. “This is a serious document; when we do make a decision, I don’t want anyone to think it’s being taken lightly.

“As a neighbor, we are really interested in doing this in a way that would not involve the attorneys taking the property.

“We would love to purchase the property and be able to keep it as open space.”

The decree states that Borough Solicitor Thomas E. Panzer has pursued negotiations for the sale of the property since Nov. 7, to no avail. The asking price is reportedly $425,000 for the 6,440-square-foot.

Last year, attorney John VanLuvanee, representing the Hunts, submitted plans to subdivide the property into two lots, one of which faces State Street and contains the historic Bird-in-Hand dwelling. The Hunts wish to sell the back half of their property and they’ve submitted plans to Newtown’s Historic Architectural Review Board that outline a near 4,000-square-foot single family home that would face Mercer Street and would require the demolition of a carriage house and an outbuilding.

“We aren’t going in and saying, ‘we want half of your back yard; you can’t have it,’” said Borough Council Vice President Tara Grunde-McLaughlin. “They’ve already made the choice that they don’t want it as part of their property.”

According to Grunde-McLaughlin, the historical association tried to buy the property before the subdivision took place. Around the same time, more than 160 petitioners signed a declaration at Change.org that asked borough council to do everything in its power to ensure the historic integrity of the property.

“It’s a fine balance between ownership and preservation,” said resident Kathy Gonsalves. “But once that’s gone – if it should be developed – it’s gone.

“There’s no getting it back.”

While Grunde-McLaughlin says the borough has the money to buy the property, Council President Kevin McDermott admits there is no line item for the purchase written into the upcoming budget.

“This just gives us the ability to look into these things; there’s nothing that’s been finalized and how this thing would work would be totally transparent to the public,” said McDermott.

“We would not do anything fiscally irresponsible.”

VanLuvanee presented the property owners’ perspective.

“It (the resolution) is a promise that, if the two sides can’t come to an agreement (of sale), they (the borough) are going to take the property,” the attorney said.

“I’m assuming they have a legal right to condemn the property if they so choose but I can’t imagine that if you took a poll, the residents of Newtown would support spending that kind of money to secure it as open space.”

The next step is appraisal, something that each side will take on. Then, comes negotiation.

The attorney wants the borough to drop its pursuit of the parking easement. If it were to be taken away via eminent domain, he says, the lack of parking would diminish the front half of the Hunt’s property.

And in that case, VanLuvanee says, the town would also be responsible for paying his clients for any decrease in value to the front half of their property.

“It is definitely something the taxpayers of Newtown have to consider,” said Grunde-McLaughlin.

“We are an historic borough,” added Councilor Robert King. “We have to show resolve and do the difficult things to retain our historical character.

“It’s easy to say, ‘we have an historic district,’ but if we don’t take action, sometimes it has a tendency to dissipate the historic district itself.”

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