December 18, 2003
OF YELLOW SPRINGS
Time after time those who live in small towns have seen their beloved landscape vanish as development consumes farmland, replacing trees, corn and wildlife with houses, stores and cement. It’s a familiar story and the end is always the same — townspeople lose, developers win.
But in 1999 in Yellow Springs, that story had a new and surprising ending.
The preservation of Whitehall Farm is the story of Yellow Springs at its best — a little town with big ideas, a town whose people embraced an activist spirit, creative strategies and a can-do attitude that in the end defeated the forces of development so that the village’s northern edge will remain forever green.
The preservation of Whitehall Farm “stands as an idealized model of community collaboration,” said Al Denman, who co-chaired the Farmland Preservation Task Force. Said Bob Barcus, “It was the best of community activism.”
The alarm bell rang in December 1998, when the Yellow Springs News reported that Whitehall Farm would be auctioned on Feb. 22, 1999.
“ Before there was Yellow Springs, before there was John Bryan Park, there was Whitehall Farm,” stated a Feb. 22 Dayton Daily News article. The 940-acre fields of corn and soybeans on the town’s northern edge had been a working farm ever since it was originally purchased by Martin Baum in the early 1800s. It had changed hands several times since — and its mansion, patterned after the original White House, was rumored to be the birthplace of the Republican Party — until it ended up the property of the Kelly family, which it remained for a hundred years.
With the death of Martha Kelly Rankin in the mid 1990s, the fate of the farm seemed uncertain, since Rankin’s heirs, her seven grandchildren, all lived out of state and were believed to want to sell the farm. For more than a year before the auction announcement, the Farmland Preservation Task Force, a group of private individuals and public officials, worked with the national farmland preservation organization Trust for Public Land (TPL) to secure an option to buy the farm and place a conservation easement on it, Denman said. But the TPL became overextended with other projects, and in December 1998, the organization pulled out of the Whitehall Farm project.
“ That left us in the lurch,” Denman said.
It also left countless villagers in shock. Many suspected that their beloved view of cows and corn would be quickly replaced by a strip mall or row after row of suburban homes, doubling the size of the village.
“ I want to live in a small town in a rural setting,” Barcus said. “This was the greatest threat to that possibility that I’d seen.”
The obstacles seemed, at first, insurmountable. The farm was expected to sell for about $3 million, according to News reports. While the Farmland Preservation Task Force explored options for saving the farm, including finding conservation-minded “angels” to buy the whole farm and place it under a conservation easement, no reliable angels materialized, according to Denman. Another strategy, raising the monetary difference between the farm’s selling price and its resale value with easements, about $1.3 million, seemed equally overwhelming.
As December eased into January and the auction date drew closer, villagers felt a growing sense of crisis, expressed in letters and opinions in the News and in conversations all over town.
“ People are upset and they don’t know what to do,” villager Arlene Goldstein said at a January meeting of the Miami Township trustees.
Perhaps it was a combination of factors that began to turn the tide. In the beginning of January, Village Council, at the suggestion of its president, Joe Lewis, agreed to put up “a significant portion” of the Village’s $385,000 Green Belt Fund toward the farm’s purchase. The Miami Township trustees kicked in their entire inheritance tax fund, $13,717.
Most important, villagers began moving from despair to hope.
At the January township trustees meeting, Goldstein suggested that local residents each contribute “a few hundred dollars,” toward buying the farm, and the idea took hold. In response, Judy Hempfling, an organizer of Citizens to Save Our Town and Farmland, took Goldstein’s idea a step further, suggesting in a letter to the editor in the News that if 400 households contributed $1,000 each, the Village Green Belt Fund could be matched.
“ When I started thinking about what we could do, I realized we had to convince people that it was possible,” Hempfling recalled in a recent interview. “It was huge.”
A Jan. 25 town meeting on saving the farm captured villagers’ energies and strengthened their hopes. Originally scheduled to take place in a Bryan Community Center meeting room, the gathering was moved to the First Presbyterian Church when more than 200 people showed up.
“ It’s my most indelible memory of that time,” Barcus said, describing how, as he drove to the meeting, he saw people “streaming” down sidewalks and streets toward the Bryan Center. “I’d never seen so many people going in the same direction at the same time,” he said. “It was the most inspiring thing I’ve ever experienced in the village.”
Following the meeting, villagers painted signs, held rallies and fundraisers, and called every name in the Yellow Springs phone book to ask for donations. Kids held garage sales to save the farm.
And it worked. Throughout February, villagers charted fundraising efforts at the large corn-silo-shaped thermometer that was erected next to Deaton’s Hardware. When Feb. 22 arrived, Tecumseh Land Trust had at its disposal $441,000 in donations. Coupled with the Village and Township money, the group had almost a million dollars.
The night of the auction 800 people squeezed into the banquet room at the Springfield Holiday Inn, while outside, villagers held a rally, singing “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land is Our Land.” Media from Dayton and surrounding communities arrived with their cameras and tape recorders, while auctioneer Gene Klingaman of the Indiana-based Schrader Real Estate and Auction Company, stated that, in 20 years of business, “I’ve never had this happen before,” the Dayton Daily News reported.
But the auction’s outcome was by no means certain. According to Denman, conservation “angels” had still not surfaced, and Tecumseh Land Trust went into the auction with a variety of strategies, including buying part of the land outright, or making deals with farmers who were bidding on parcels. Among those attending were Sharen and David Neuhardt, who owned the Whitehall mansion and a small parcel of the farm, and who hoped to purchase more acres. Although TLT had once hoped the Neuhardts could purchase the whole farm, the couple made clear it was beyond their means.
At the auction, bidders made offers on various parcels, and after the first round of bidding, the total value of individual bids reached $2.5 million, the News reported.
But then things got confusing, especially since the bidding was by number and few knew which numbers were developers and which were conservationists or farmers. The most serious competition developed between bidders No. 51 and No. 155, with No. 155 finally making a surprising $3.2 million offer for the whole farm.
“ The media and crowd were still unsure about the mysterious identity of No. 155,” according to the News report. “Was it the land trust saving the whole farm, or a developer with plans to build ‘Yellow Springs Two?’ “
But then other bidders raised their bids on individual tracts as well. By this time most knew that No. 155 was, in fact, the Neuhardts, having surprised everyone — including, said Denman, themselves and their banker — by attempting to buy the whole farm. But the auctioneers stalled for time, trying to get the highest prices, and other bids rose too.
“ It was hard to breathe,” Denman said of the experience. “Those last 15 minutes were the most exciting I’ve ever lived through.”
Then the Neuhardts jumped their price to $3,225,000. With 10 seconds to go, according to the News, the villagers standing in the back of the room began counting down in unison, “10, 9, 8, 7, 6... And then it was over and the cheering began.”
The angels showed up, after all. Prompted by their love for their land and for the village, Sharen and David Neuhardt took a huge financial risk and saved the farm.
But while the couple undoubtedly deserve the bulk of the credit, the preservation of Whitehall Farm also belongs to the village of Yellow Springs.
“ This is a story about one community’s attempt to preserve a sacred space, a diminishing resource and a way of life,” News editor Amy Harper wrote in an editorial on Feb. 25. “It’s about how government and private citizens joined forces to achieve a common goal. It’s about how ordinary people can make things happen if they put their minds to it.”
“ This is the story about the little community that could,” Harper wrote. “It’s a story about us. We are the angels who saved Whitehall Farm.”
— Diane Chiddister