Little left to preserve in Bart Township
BY JACK BRUBAKER, Staff Writer
Donna McCool has organized house tours on behalf of the Southern Lancaster County Historical Society for four years.
She had no trouble finding sufficient old homes to feature in Drumore, Little Britain and Colerain townships.
But this year's June 1 tour will be in Bart Township.
That has been a problem.
"I didn't realize how bad it was in Bart until I started contacting people to find out who is interested in the tour,'' she explained. "It's just really limited.''
As far as preservation of historic buildings goes, Bart is off the chart.
Its zoning ordinance defines historic structures in general terms, but doesn't suggest why such structures might be valuable or how they might be protected.
Until relatively recently, Bart didn't even require a demolition permit. If a property owner wanted to reduce a building to rubble, he just did it -- without informing the township or anyone else.
"When I started working here as zoning officer in 2006, there were no demolition permits,'' explained John Coldiron, the township's zoning officer. "I told [township supervisors] we have to get a record of demolitions, largely to save people money by taking the buildings off the tax rolls.''
Why doesn't Bart do more to preserve its old houses and barns and mills?
"To tell you the truth, we don't have hardly anything left to preserve,'' explained Calvin Keene, chairman of Bart's supervisors since 1988.
There's an 18th century house and barn at what's left of the village of Bartshire on Dry Wells Road. It's on the historical society's tour. And the old Manse at Middle Octorara Presbyterian Church on Valley Road is on the tour.
Two Bart churches -- the Bart Quaker Meeting House and Octorara Covenanter Presbyterian Church, the oldest Covenanter church in North America -- are on the tour.
There are a few other old houses, but nobody offered them for the tour. McCool had to go outside Bart to Sadsbury Township and Christiana to find a sufficient number of participants.
"There are some historic homes in Bart Township,'' McCool explained, "but many are owned by Amish. They don't normally worry about the historic parts of the house and they aren't interested in the tours.''
Keene said part of the problem in Bart is Amish families who demolish old homes so they can build larger ones in their place.
"The majority of people in Bart Township are Amish,'' he said. "Ninety percent of the Amish don't seem to care about preserving history. We've had a lot of new houses go in places where there was a very old house.''
The Amish "can build new houses cheaper than others by using volunteer labor,'' Keene added.
An Amishman who lives near Georgetown and asked not to have his name published did not completely disagree with Keene.
"I don't think some Amish appreciate history as much as some people would,'' he said. "But oftentimes when they buy a new farm, they need a larger house for a larger family.''
Beyond that, he said, the Amish are buying old farms, and often old houses and barns, that are no longer efficient.
"The ground is also historic,'' he said, "and in order for them to keep it, they have to make a bigger building so they can operate more efficiently.''
Is the township concerned that many of its oldest buildings are being destroyed or dramatically altered?
"We have nothing to prevent anything from being torn down,'' said Keene. "If we had a lot to save, it might be worth [adding regulation of old structures to the zoning ordinance], but we don't.''
Besides, Keene said, the guiding philosophy in Bart Township is to "keep government as simple as you can. I like history, but I'm reluctant to pass rules that protect people from themselves or put more expense on people.''
Coldiron, the zoning officer, said he is not happy with Bart's lack of regulation.
"I just find it kind of appalling that a township like Bart can't protect a historic structure,'' he said. "They do have limited resources,'' he conceded. "There's no historical society to do any work.''
Although he is critical of Bart, Coldiron admitted that he isn't sold on forced preservation himself.
The zoning officer lives in an 18th century house outside Oxford, Chester County. He is preserving the home, but he doesn't want anyone telling him how to do the job.
"If we put it on the National Register,'' he said, "they give us the do's and don'ts. And I say, 'Wait a minute, are you going to pay the taxes?' "
In any case, in Bart Township, property owners must be preservationists or no one will be.
Barry Girvin is doing what he can to preserve Octorara Covenanter Presbyterian.
As president of the church board, he solicits funds to maintain the building, which is no longer used on a regular basis. He is creating a museum there.
As a native but no longer resident of the township, however, there's not much more he can do. Bart, he said, has changed.
"Some of the houses in Bart don't look like they used to,'' Girvin said. "They have Amish architecture built onto them two or three times -- those that haven't been knocked down.''
But the Amishman said it's not just an Amish problem.
"It's the age we live in,'' he said. "People want to build something bigger these days.''