Aquetong Spring Park/Open Space Grant/Proposed Multi-Purpose Field Update

We are writing to update the community on recent issues in Solebury Township concerning the protection of open space and, in particular, Aquetong Spring Park and a grant application for a multipurpose recreational field located behind the Solebury Township offices, at the former municipal garage site. On May 3, the Bucks County Commissioners approved a Municipal Open Space grant for a conservation easement on a 32.26 acre parcel in Solebury Township, amounting to $562,444. Solebury Township wishes to express our appreciation to the County Commissioners for their support of this grant and the long tradition of cooperation to preserve and protect farms and natural areas.

Over the past two years, the County and the Township have engaged in significant discussions involving a disagreement whether the Township appropriately provided notice over the plan to take down the dam at Aquetong Spring Park.

Regrettably, the Township has a fundamental disagreement with the County over the facts surrounding this issue. Our position is that taking the dam down was the most fiscally and environmentally responsible action that could be taken, that significant public input was obtained as part of the decision process, that all funds were expended properly, that the Township abided by the conservation easement, and that sufficient notice was provided to the County. Please read below for more details.

In July 2013, immediately after the Township voted to take the dam down in a public meeting, the Township’s land preservation attorney provided detailed documentation to the County. The Township continued to provide documentation during 2014, well in advance of construction. In April 2015, shortly before the construction teams were commencing work to take down the dam, the County expressed concerns that the Township had failed to provide adequate notice. Discussions between the County and the Township have continued for almost two years.

When the Township acquired the 45 acres from PA Fish and Boat in 2009, it agreed to pay $414,000 in cash and committed to spending $837,000 to repair the dam, making the total purchase price $1,251,000. Subsequently, engineering consulting firms advised the township that the cost to repair the dam could be as high as $2 million. After discussions with PA Fish and Boat and a series of public meetings, the Township decided to pursue a far less expensive alternative - and more environmentally sound - alternative, which was to take the dam down. The final cost of taking the dam down was $845,000. PA Fish and Boat formally certified its acceptance that the Township had fully complied with all obligations under the 2009 purchase agreement in an August 3, 2016 letter to the Township.

In February of 2017, at a County Open Space Committee meeting, the County announced an intent to withhold $186,000 in Open Space funds designated for Solebury, asserting that Solebury had violated the original 2009 Conservation Easement at Aquetong Lake. In March 2017, two Supervisors from the Township, along with the Solicitor and Township Manager, met with two of the Commissioners and presented Solebury’s viewpoint on why the dam was taken down, how the County was notified, and details of all the monies expended on the Aquetong lake dam decommissioning project. In addition, the Township provided a certified letter that had been sent in advance to notify the County of the plans to take down the dam. We received no opposition or comments of any kind from the County.

The Township asked the Commissioners to reconsider the decision to withhold $186,000 in Open Space funds. At the time, the Township had two grant applications pending, one for improvements to create a multipurpose recreational field, and another for a conservation easement to protect an important property in the Township. In late April, the Commissioners indicated through counsel that the grant application for the conservation easement would be placed on their agenda, subject to a written apology from the Supervisors, even though the Township had two times earlier conveyed its apologies for any miscommunication through legal counsel. The Township sent the apology letter, signed by the Chair on behalf of the Board.

At the Board of Supervisors meeting on May 2nd, during public comment, a resident asked the Board about the status of the County grant proposal for a multipurpose field. Since it was a sensitive legal matter and the Township does not discuss pending land acquisitions, including conservation easements, the Vice Chair referred the question to the Solicitor. The Solicitor noted that the County was unlikely to act on the grant application for the multipurpose field, but that we would be learning more the following day when the Commissioners were scheduled to meet. The Solicitor noted that County representatives have communicated that field improvement grants – such as the Township’s – are not generally funded under the County’s Municipal Open Space program. He also referred to other issues, including Aquetong Spring, that have been the subject of discussions between the Township and the County.

He provided this information because although the County’s Open Space committee recommended approval of both pending grant applications, they had expressed concerns about whether the multipurpose field grant application met County Open Space grant guidelines. He also had numerous discussions with the County Solicitor as to whether the field grant met the County guidelines and whether the Commissioners would formally vote on that grant at a public meeting. Our Solicitor provided a response that was accurate yet not comprehensive because the issues had not been fully resolved.

Now that the Open Space grant for the conservation easement has been approved, it is clear that the County will not be voting on the Township’s grant proposal for the multipurpose field. The Board has scheduled time on the May 18th agenda to discuss the feasibility of constructing the multipurpose field. This was initiated in mid-April, weeks before the May 2nd meeting.

All regulatory bodies and environmental organizations have recognized that removal of the dam and restoration of the creek was the best action that could be taken for the preservation and enhancement of our shared natural resources.

The Township is determined to move forward with building a park that celebrates the Aquetong Spring, one of the natural wonders of Southeast Pennsylvania. This will be an asset for the citizens of Bucks County and the entire region. The County was instrumental in supporting the Township’s long quest to acquire this unique property, and despite our difference of opinion on this issue, we will continue to move forward and work together to use taxpayer funds wisely and exercise our responsibility to be good environmental stewards.