After spanning years of strife, bridge is saved

The Kennett Township Supervisors voted to make the endangered Chandler Mill Bridge the cornerstone of a historic district, using it primarily for pedestrian access.

The Kennett Township Supervisors voted to make the endangered Chandler Mill Bridge the cornerstone of a historic district, using it primarily for pedestrian access.

For more than a decade, a troubled bridge over tranquil waters has stirred controversy in Chester County, pitting preservationists against politicians and Kennett Township residents against their neighbors.

On Wednesday, Jan. 21, the Kennett Township supervisors ended the impasse. They passed a resolution that limits the historic Chandler Mill Bridge - a 1910 stone and steel structure that traverses the West Branch of the Red Clay Creek - to pedestrians, bicyclists, and emergency vehicles up to 20 tons and prohibits normal vehicular traffic.

Flanked by Kennett Township Supervisors' Vice-Chairman Richard L. Leff (left) and Township Manager Lisa M. Moore, Supervisors' Chairman Scudder G. Stevens explains the reasons for using the Chandler Mill Bridge for foot access only.

Flanked by Kennett Township Supervisors' Vice-Chairman Richard L. Leff (left) and Township Manager Lisa M. Moore, Supervisors' Chairman Scudder G. Stevens explains the reasons for limiting the Chandler Mill Bridge to foot access.

The unanimous vote by Supervisors’ Chairman Scudder G. Stevens and Supervisors’ Vice-Chairman Richard L. Leff – Supervisor Robert A. Hammaker was not present – elicited a standing ovation from most of the crowd of nearly 50 who attended the supervisors’ meeting. It also capped a contentious history that ultimately benefitted from the quiet influence of the great grandson of acclaimed Brandywine Valley artist Howard Pyle.

In a prepared statement, Stevens credited residents Tom Brokaw – Pyle’s descendant - and his wife, Margaretta, with facilitating the outcome with generous donations of land and money: 45 acres to The Land Conservancy of Southern Chester County (TLC) to create the Chandler Mill Nature Preserve; $100,000 toward the TLC’s headquarters with an Interpretive Nature Center adjacent to the bridge; and a $100,000 endowment to the township for the maintenance and upkeep of the bridge.

That revelation prompted resident Susan Singer to suggest that a wealthy landowner had essentially bribed the township, a contention the supervisors emphatically denied.

After the meeting, Stevens and Leff acknowledged that no option would have pleased everyone; however, based on a series of meetings and input from residents over several years, maintaining the bridge as a conduit to an extensive network of trails benefitted the vast majority of residents as well as the environment. Moreover, many of the other alternatives would have produced negative impacts, such as the loss of a historic structure, damage to native flora and fauna, and increased traffic.

At one point in the bridge's tumultuous history, advocates posed to raise attention to its plight.

At one point in the bridge's tumultuous past, advocates spelled out "this place matters to us" to raise attention to the bridge's plight as an endangered historic resource.

The height of the conflict dates back to 2009, when Chester County, which owned the bridge, began to explore ways to deal with the one-lane, two-way span’s deterioration. In conjunction with PennDOT, the county concluded that quaintness should not trump safety. PennDOT’s subsequent recommendations to raze and modernize the structure, which sits next to the juncture of Chandler Mill and Bucktoe Roads in a bucolic swath of Kennett Township, drew the wrath of conservation groups and citizens.

The county responded with an unusual offer: Whoever wanted the bridge, which was designed for horse and buggies and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010, could take it for free. At the time,  Kennett Township was not interested.

In May 2011, the bridge, which is now surrounded by about 500 acres of conserved land, was closed after engineers deemed it unsafe. Since then, work has continued through the township and advocacy groups to come up with a solution.

Township traffic studies showed that during the closure, motorists - the bulk of whom were mushroom workers commuting to their jobs - found alternate ways to get around, Stevens said during Wednesday night’s meeting.

On Nov. 5, the Kennett Township supervisors voted to take ownership of the Chandler Mill Bridge from Chester County, thus saving it from demolition and replacement. On Dec. 8, the Chester County Commissioners happily passed a resolution to transfer ownership of the bridge to Kennett Township, setting up further discussion in the township and Wednesday night’s vote.

The resolution identified the bridge as a key component in the western portion of the Red Clay Greenway, a developing 10- to 12-mile trail corridor connecting the Borough of Kennett Square and other community assets to create a contiguous walking, jogging, biking and recreational thoroughfare for the benefit of Kennett residents and the surrounding communities.

The future 45-acre Chandler Mill Nature Preserve and Interpretive Center will be part of an Audubon Important Bird Area, and contains rare avian species, 100-year-old specimen trees, nature trails, and historic landmarks. The resolution designated the Chandler Mill Bridge as a contributing resource within the planned West Branch of the Red Clay Creek Historic District, an area that includes an African American Civil War cemetery, Freeman’s Village, historic millrace, and deacon’s house.

Among the people who praised the vote was Chris Robinson, who chairs the New Garden Township Open Space Review Board. He said he attended the meeting because he wanted the supervisors to know that their actions would have positive ramifications beyond the township’s borders. “I really applaud the board’s efforts,” he said.

After the vote, Tom Brokaw said he and his wife were not interested in publicity, but he expressed hope that other landowners might be inspired to help preserve the area’s pristine landscapes.

“After a decade of advocacy it is a relief to know that a quiet, quaint area like Chandler Mill will remain that way in perpetuity thanks to the dedication and perseverance of those who believed it was possible to not only save the historic bridge from demolition but to take back a road for the public benefit,” said Gwen Lacy, TLC’s executive director.  “This is amazing precedent and one that I hope other townships, who are interested in preserving their quality of life, will have the courage and the vision to emulate.”

According to Brandywine Conservancy records, the Brokaws have been pursuing conservation initiatives since 2002. Lacy said the couple’s preservation efforts in the Chandler Mill area span three decades. She said they started with one modest parcel that included their home and have added 17 other parcels over the years, totaling more than 300 acres.

Calling the Brokaws “true conservationists and philanthropists,” Lacy said their actions are wonderfully consistent with Tom Brokaw’s ancestry. “We like to think Tom is also an artist,” she said. “His canvas is the land, and we are all assisting him in painting his masterpiece at Bucktoe Creek Preserve.”

 

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About Kathleen Brady Shea

Kathleen Brady Shea, a nearly lifelong area resident, has been reporting on local news for several decades, including 19 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer. She believes that journalists provide a vital watchdog service in the community, and she embraces that commitment. In addition to unearthing news, she also enjoys digging up dirt in her garden, a hobby that frequently fosters Longwood Gardens envy. Along with her husband, Pete, she lives in a historic residence near the Brandywine Battlefield, a property that is also home to a sheep, a goat, and a passel of fish.

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