Pending sale of Crebilly Farm sparks outcry

The news last week that Crebilly Farm, a picturesque 300-plus-acre property in Westtown Township, was poised to become a 300-unit Toll Brothers subdivision, prompted swift public outcry.

Hundreds of area residents took to social media, many expressing outrage as well as interest in doing whatever possible to stop the bulldozers. Dr. Ryan K. Tamburrino, an area orthodontist, even pledged to donate $300 to the cause for each new patient he receives in July who mentions the preservation effort.

However, questions remain about what, if anything, can prevent Westtown Township’s conditional-use approval, particularly since the developer’s preliminary plans fall within township guidelines.

Speaking at an information session on Thursday, June 30, Andrew J. Semon, a division president for Toll Brothers, said the agreement of sale is contingent upon getting that approval. He said he expected the developer to submit an application later this summer.

Commenting generically, officials from several area land trusts and conservancies said they are always willing to discuss development alternatives. However, they all stressed that successful negotiations can’t happen without a key component: a willing landowner.

Crebilly Farm has flirted with development before. Bounded by Routes 926 and 202, South New Street, and West Pleasant Grove Road in Westtown Township, the tract at issue has reportedly been owned by the family of James K. Robinson Jr., a descendant of the co-founder of Acme supermarkets, since World War II. A decision by his sons, James K. Robinson III and David M. Robinson, to sell about 200 acres on the southwest corner of the family’s estate led to the Brandywine at Thornbury subdivision, which doubled the population of Thornbury Township more than a decade ago, according to published reports.

A 2003 assisted-living community and a 2012 apartment complex never made it off the drawing board for the northern portion of the property in Westtown Township, but a parcel on the western side of New Street was sold earlier this year and will become two residences, township officials said at the meeting last week. And because Toll Brothers’ plans for the rest of the property don’t require a zoning change, the developer won’t face the same hurdles as the previous applicants, township officials explained.

In 2000, the Brandywine Battlefield Task Force issued a publication entitled “Battlefield Protection Strategies,” including an entire section on Westtown Township. It pointed out that the battlefield crossed the southwestern corner of Westtown in an area that is mostly agricultural.

Brian O’Leary, executive director of the Chester County Planning Commission, said Crebilly Farm lies within the Brandywine Battlefield boundary study area, and troops most likely crossed the farm, according to the 2012 Brandywine Battlefield Plan.

As host to the largest troop movement of the American Revolution, the Battle of Brandywine was federally recognized in 1938 and became a National Historical Landmark in 1961. Despite this high level of distinction, the designation does not regulate property use or rights, the publication said.

A year after that publication, Westtown Township identified the Crebilly tract as one of the largest remaining agricultural areas in its 2001 Growth Management Plan. “Fortunately, the owners of the remaining farmland in Westtown have a strong interest in wanting to keep their land open,” the plan stated. “However, there are serious financial pressures to sell to development, including real-estate taxes.”

Officials in Chester County recognized that pressure more than two decades ago, becoming a regional leader in open-space preservation. In 2000, the county released a handbook called "Taking Control of Your Land: A Land Stewardship Guidebook for Landowners." The document discusses the financial benefits of conservation-oriented development and the tax benefits of conservation easements. At the time of its publication, county officials said it was mailed to approximately 1,200 landowners who owned parcels of 50 acres or more, which would have included the Robinsons.

Bill Gladden, Chester County’s director of the Department of Open Space Preservation, said landowners have several options relative to preservation: sell the land to a conservation buyer, such as a land trust or conservancy; sell the development rights, known as an easement, and keep ownership of the rights that are retained; or craft a hybrid agreement, such as an outright sale combined with a conservation easement for some of the property.

Gladden said the incentives, including tax breaks and grants, for pursuing conservation, are spelled out online at www.chesco.org/openspace.

Molly Morrison, president of Natural Lands Trust, said monies to compensate owners for reducing or eliminating development rights on a piece of land typically originate with public entities – townships, counties and the state – but sometimes funds come from private foundations or from community members or neighbors who are willing to invest funds to protect an open space or historic resource in their community.

Several conservation experts suggested that the knowledge that a scenic vista has been preserved for generations to come,  as well as the community good will that such a choice would engender, provides a priceless benefit to the landowner.

“Chester County is blessed with some of the most sophisticated, private, nonprofit, conservation organizations in the country,” Gladden said. “If the landowner, township and/or a conservancy want to work on a preservation solution, I am available to review details or questions that may arise.”

In the meantime, Morrison recommended that concerned residents “be outspoken about their opinions” and participate in the public process.

“But at the end of the day, the only person in a position to influence the outcome of this is the owner of Crebilly Farm,” she said.

Gwen Lacy, executive director of The Land Conservancy for Southern Chester County, said she has seen several examples of citizen advocacy that successfully blocked the development of prized landscapes. However, she conceded that ordinances are often stacked in favor of developers, who typically have deeper pockets than land trusts and residents.

“I always say I long for the day when land conservancies have more than enough money to carry out their work, and developers have to hold a bake sale,” Lacy said.

 

 

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