Solebury resident Kevin Cambell is a plain-speaking man who gets to his point quickly and likes his facts straight and unadorned.
That’s probably why an otherwise routine meeting of the Solebury Board of Supervisors on May 2 became the flashpoint for a controversy over the group’s handling of an open space grant from Bucks County to repair the Aquetong Dam.
Flash back to 2009: Solebury Township purchased the Aquetong Spring property for $414,000 from Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission with the condition that they undertake an $837,000 repair of the dam. Bucks County awarded the township a $600,000 grant to fund the purchase and repair.
In 2013, the Solebury Board of Supervisors decided that it was better financially and environmentally to remove the dam rather than repair it. But when the dam was finally removed in 2015, Bucks County commissioners began complaining that they hadn’t been properly consulted on its elimination, and asserted that the township violated the conditions of the grant. The commissioners were also displeased that the township hadn’t immediately returned $186,00 in unused money from the project.
In February 2017, the county declared it would withhold $186,000 in open space funds designated for Solebury, and in March Solebury supervisors asked the county to reconsider its decision. Solebury had already submitted two grant applications — one to fund a multipurpose recreational field at Laurel Park, and the other to protect the 32-acre “Saul’s” property in the township. In late April, the commissioners told Solebury officials that they would consider the grant application for preserving the parcel, without mentioning the fate of the Laurel Park field grant.
Enter Kevin Campbell, who also chairs Solebury’s Parks & Recreation Committee. He attended the May 2 Board of Supervisors meeting, and asked for an update on the grants. Supervisor Helen Tai was chairing the meeting in Kevin Morrissey’s absence, and referred the request to Township Solicitor Jordan Yeager, who said that a field improvement at Laurel Park would likely not be approved for a Municipal Open Space grant. Campbell decided to attend the Bucks County Commissioners meeting scheduled for the next day, May 3.
There, Campbell asked Commissioner Chairman Charles Martin for an update on the Laurel Park grant application, and Martin agreed to speak with him after the meeting.
“Solebury Township used [Aquetong] grant funds for something other than what the grant was approved for, and did not return the unused portion of the funds, and that is why the Laurel Park grant was not approved,” Martin explained, recounts Campbell.
Campbell believes that the dispute between the township and county over the Aquetong project may have damaged the relationship between the two, and could impair Solebury’s ability to receive open space grants from the county going forward. He also believes Yeager’s remarks at the May 2 supervisor’s meeting were misleading because the solicitor already knew the Laurel Park grant request would be denied.
But a spokesperson for the Bucks County Commissioners indicated that they believed their relationship with Solebury supervisors had not been permanently damaged.
“Certainly there were issues between the county and the township over how the Aquetong grant was handled,” said Lynn Bush, executive director of the Bucks County Planning Commission. “We never gave them permission to change it. The question of the Laurel Park field is about the purpose of the county’s open space program, and it involves grading land and moving gravel, which is not the type of project the commissioners usually favor. They like the money to go to preserving land into perpetuity.
“I think we’ve come to a reasonable accommodation of our concerns, as well as Solebury’s desire to preserve open space,” Bush added. “Last week we approved Saul’s property, which is true open space. The commissioners feel that the issues with Solebury have been adequately resolved from their point of view.”
And Solebury supervisors say that Yeager’s response to Campbell’s question at their May 2 meeting was not misleading because the County’s Open Space committee had already expressed concerns about whether the multipurpose field grant application met open space grant guidelines.
Solebury Supervisor Helen Tai said that she and her fellow supervisors held out hope for the Laurel Park grant until May 3, when only Saul’s project was considered. Up until that point, supervisors were concerned that any public mention of their ongoing dispute with the county could be seen as a pressure tactic and backfire, jeopardizing the Laurel Park grant, Tai said. Further, the supervisors were concerned about possible legal action resulting from the Aquetong misunderstanding. Hence, Yeager’s somewhat limited response to Campbell’s question on May 2.
“Laurel Park wasn’t approved yet, and we didn’t want to jeopardize it,” said Tai. “A week before the commissioners voted, they asked us to write a third letter of apology [about the Aquetong grant], and we did — we thought there was still a chance.”
Campbell isn’t buying that explanation. He thinks that Solebury supervisors should have kept the public informed about their dispute with the county all along.
“When you keep this under wraps for two years, that’s not transparent,” he said. They’re saying the Laurel Park matter was under legal consideration, and it wasn’t.”
Meanwhile, the continued flap over their handling of the Aquetong grant has forced Solebury supervisors to consider whether erring on the side of greater public disclosure might have been a better course in pursuing their latest open space grant.
“The Solebury Township Board of Supervisors would like to thank the County Commissioners for clarifying the controversy surrounding the grant for Aquetong Spring as well as the reason they rejected the grant proposal for the multi-purpose field, i.e., the funds are not meant to support this type of project,” the group said in a written statement issued late Wednesday.
“In addition, the Solebury Supervisors would like to apologize to the Solebury community. In hindsight, we recognize that our communications could have been more forthcoming and may have contributed to mistrust between the public and the Board.
“The county has been a valued partner in helping Solebury preserve more than one-third of its land, and we look forward to working with the Commissioners in the future,” the supervisors continued.
Campbell’s main concern remains the shortage of available playing fields for youth sports and recreation.
“There’s one acre where the existing salt barn is that’s required per the permit to be turned back to grass,” he explained. “We ask them to turn it into nice grass. Let’s do it right, and make it an area that’s useful.”
How is misappropriating $186,000 not a criminal offense?
I’d be interested in some present and projected population numbers for this area. Are we anticipating more children and a greater need for playing fields or is the population declining? Will we be needing more classroom space as well or will this school district eventually be forced to consolidate with a neighboring one? Just wondering.
Dear Will, The pun was directed at the Fish and Boat Commission that is part of the Solebury SNAFU. Rarely will I ever uphold the status quo as you should know by now. You mentioned there are 3 fields and mentioned 2 sports, what’s the 3rd sport and where are the 2 sites? Safe passive recreating for adults is lacking in Solebury, but I guess you don’t do that because you are sitting and watching your kid play an organized sport. Good for you at this point in your life. But what about your future?
Another nonsensical Pink post.
You don’t have to say “no pun intended” when there is no pun.
All you see is “freakin playing fields”? There are 3 sites, baseball fields on one of them, soccer on 2…care to expound?
It’s more than “seasonal playing fields” (whatever that is) for “tiny tots”…if you care to join this millennium organized sports on quality fields are the status quo…and we fortunately have the resources to make that happen. Retired people like you have to accept that you have to pay taxes, and try to understand the concept of the common good, even if you no longer have (or never had) young kids.
The parents are at every game…so how are the coaches “babysitters”. The coaches are actually a great and incredibly giving and unselfish resource to our community.
I’ll just let the “shot by hunters” and “surveillance cameras” non-sequiturs go unaddressed.
Bait and Switch about the Aquetong dam? No pun intended.
Not enough playing fields and recreation? All I see in Solebury are freakin playing fields that never seem to have any action on them! Maybe newbies come here and see all this open space and want to gobble it up for soccer!? As for the lack of recreation argument, how can more seasonal playing fields for tiny tots help that!? One would thinks that’s all parents want their kids to do is join organized seasonal sports and I just don’t think that’s true nor something to pander to. Maybe its just the baby sitting by coaches that parents want? I say let the kids explore freely all of the natural resources that Solebury prides its self about. But be very careful under the PECO power lines between Chapel Road and School Lane, they might be shot by hunters! Smile, you will be on surveillance cameras by property owners who will call the police and have them arrested for trespassing. Friendly Solebury.