Residents of Middletown Township are not pleased with their board of supervisors, and they made it known during the virtual meeting on Feb. 16. Local after local fiercely addressed the board via Zoom, each with one topic in mind – the Styer property.
At the Feb. 1 meeting, it was unanimously decided that Styer Orchard (owned by Tim Field) and the Market at Styer (owned by Sharon and Dave Barberides) would be run by Field. The board previously announced that the properties, which for 20 years operated under two separate leases, would be granted to a single lessee when both agreements expired on Jan. 31. The two parties were asked to submit proposals, and the supervisors selected Field.
On the heels of the decision, the Barberides’ took to Facebook to express their outrage. They told followers that they were “devastated” and were given no warning about the outcome prior to the meeting. The Barberides’ were allegedly told by township manager Stephanie Teoli Kuhls that they had 30 days to vacate the store. Also, in response to the supervisors’ reasoning that one lease would allow orchard products to be sold at the store, they said a working relationship was attempted, but the Field family denied their request.
Now, much of the township seems to be rallying behind the couple. In addition to a petition signed by 19,800 and counting when The Times went to print, a slew of residents made their voices heard on Feb. 16 after chairperson Tom Tosti attempted to clear up “misinformation” spread on social media.
According to him, the possibility of losing the store shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Both parties were informed in December 2019 that the market and orchard leases would be expiring. At the time, conversations were taking place with Heritage Conservancy, which planned to take over both properties. But last summer, the organization backed out, and the township was left “in a bind.”
“I don’t believe our township should be in the real estate business,” said Tosti.
Deciding to stick with the plan of one lease, Field and the Barberides’ were asked to submit proposals. Board members Amy Strouse and Dawn Quirple also interviewed them in January to discuss future plans for Styer. In a vote of 5-0, ownership of the market and orchard was granted to Field.
Multiple residents demanded to know what made Field’s proposal the better choice, given the Barberides’ have 20 years of experience operating the store.
“I felt that Field’s plan was concise. He didn’t have grand plans, but he wanted to bring [founder] ‘Pop’ Styer’s vision of what was sold at the field, bringing it to the market, bringing more educational opportunities,” said Quirple. “It was a manageable, thought-out-plan, where the other side had some really good ideas, but I didn’t feel they had a good grasp on how they were going to get there, what kind of revenue that would take. For me, it was a glaring difference.”
Tosti added that the Barberdies’ were not going to be forced out of the store in 30 days. Rather, he said they’d have until March 31 and wouldn’t have to pay rent in February and March.
After countless public comment participants expressed similar outcries, Sharon Barberides couldn’t stay quiet any longer and raised her own virtual hand to speak.
“I’m astounded at what I’ve just been listening to,” she said. “We had a well-experienced team of farmers. Should Mr. Field not choose to participate in a lease with us, we had farmers with over 50 years of experience, including orchard experience, ready and willing to step up.”
Barberides went on to outline the educational opportunities she and Dave provide, including free school tours to elementary students of the Neshaminy School District and cooking classes.
“So it is highly suspect that you are now acting as though we had no real thought-out plan,” she said. “We had very definite plans and we knew how to execute them.”
When Barberides asked the board, “How will you make this right?,” there was an awkward silence before Tosti said her attorney should contact the township solicitor.
“I’m asking you as human beings. Where is your heart? Now we’re losing our income,” she said. “Twenty years, and this is the thanks we get. You should all be ashamed.”
Throughout the barrage of questions, the supervisors adamantly defended their decision. Mike Ksiazek said his intent was to uphold the vision of Walter “Pop” Styer, who wanted farm products to be sold at the market. This couldn’t be done under the restrictions of the two leases. None of the supervisors had information on why the Styer property was split 20 years ago.
“We have this incredible community asset and as much as we don’t want to be commercial landlords, we are and we have to figure out what is the best use of this community asset that provides the best benefit to the residents of this township,” he said.
Tosti pleaded with residents to move forward.
“Mr. Field really does need the support of our township. He has a business that he wants to kick off. Some of the stuff that has happened to him, the threats, the social media posts, us having to send our police force over there, we as a township can do better,” Tosti said.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com