Hopes fading to save historic Crebilly Farm

Answers to area residents’ questions about what has been done to prevent a historic piece of Chester County farmland from being bulldozed for carriage homes have been challenging to obtain and are not likely to quell public protest.

A 300-unit subdivision plan for Crebilly Farm in Westtown Township is generating public protest.

A subdivision plan for the 330-acre Crebilly Farm in Westtown is generating public protest.

In July, Toll Brothers’ Andrew Semon, a divisional president, told the Westtown Township supervisors during a board work session that his company had an agreement of sale for the 330-acre property. He said Toll would soon submit a plan that conforms to existing township zoning for more than 300 homes ranging in price from $400,000 to $1 million on the 330-acre property.

Semon said the sales agreement was contingent upon receiving preliminary approval from Westtown, and township officials explained that the proposal complied with its 2001 comprehensive plan, which is being updated and won’t affect the developer. Semon also asked the township what it would like to see in the way of enhancements that could be leveraged to increase the density up to 385 homes.

He answered several residents’ concerns about traffic by suggesting that the intersection of Routes 202 and 926 was already so congested that a traffic engineer had opined that the addition of another development would not make a perceptible difference.

In response, area residents took to social media, expressing outrage that no one seemed to be trying to save the historic, scenic property. Recently, those efforts have intensified. A change.org petition has been garnering several hundred signatures a day at https://www.change.org/p/westtown-township-save-crebilly-farm, and a Facebook page titled “Save Crebilly Farm in Westtown Twp” has also been attracting lively commentary at https://www.facebook.com/savecrebillyfarm/?fref=ts.

Officials from several area land trusts and conservancies said they were not free to discuss specifics on the Crebilly tract because confidentiality plays a substantial role in most negotiations. But several officials, speaking on the condition that they not be identified, said that members of the Robinson family, descendants of the co-founder of Acme supermarkets, had been amenable to an option that would have preserved much of the property, but that Westtown Township did not support the plan.

Asked last week about whether the township had discouraged a conservation agreement, Westtown Township Manager Rob Pingar said only that the supervisors have had no contact with the Crebilly Farm property owners since August 2015, when a conditional-use application for an apartment complex on the property was withdrawn by the Bozutto Development Company.

“Since the township was made aware of a potential residential development by Toll Brothers, the board of supervisors has had no discussions with anyone about this property related to preserving it from development,” Pingar said. He added that the board had no comment related to the potential tax revenue a Crebilly-Toll development would bring.

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. However, O'Leary said last week that the task force has not discussed the Crebilly proposal.

In 2000, the Brandywine Battlefield Task Force issued a publication entitled “Battlefield Protection Strategies,” including an entire section on Westtown Township. It stated that one of the purposes of the publication was to highlight significant areas so that municipalities could take steps to preserve them.

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.

“Generally, the task force is interested in seeing as much of the battlefield area preserved as possible,” O’Leary said.

In 2001, Westtown Township identified the Crebilly tract as one of the largest remaining agricultural areas in its Growth Management Plan and therefore at risk for development. Officials in Chester County had already recognized that risk. A year earlier, the county released a handbook that outlined the financial benefits of conservation-oriented development and the tax benefits of conservation easements.

“Prior to the purchase of the Crebilly Farm by Toll Brothers, and at our request, Bill Gladden coordinated with conservation partners to discuss with the Robinson Family and its advisors, ways in which the county and partners could fund a conservation project on the property,” an emailed statement from the county commissioners said.  “Those discussions concluded when the property was sold.”

Gladden, Chester County’s director of the Department of Open Space Preservation, stated publicly two months ago that he would always be willing to discuss the myriad conservation options open to anyone interested in preserving Crebilly Farm. Since then, no one has taken him up on that offer, he said last week.

The commissioners added that Toll Brothers has requested a meeting with the county’s Planning Commission to review battlefield aspects of the property.  “At that meeting, the county will advocate to preserve as much of the battlefield area as possible,” the commissioners’ statement said.   “If future opportunities arise where conservation can play a role in the property, we will be very happy to be a part of those discussions.

Conservation officials said they have fading hopes that the property can be preserved, but they’ve seen 11th-hour saves before. It would take a full-court press that includes a consortium of preservationists, lawmakers, and government officials, they said, adding that members of the public need to make their voices heard.

The conservationists' goals would include just compensation to the Robinson family for its pristine, historic property; preservation for future generations of the hallowed battlefield ground the Robinsons have stewarded; and the opportunity to spare the public from the negative impacts that overdevelopment would bring to the region.

The Westtown Township Board of Supervisors is scheduled to meet on Monday, Sept. 19, in the township building at 1039 Wilmington Pike. A workshop begins at 6 p.m., and the regular meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. Crebilly Farm is not on the agenda and may not be until Toll Brothers submits its development plan.

Crebilly Farm is no stranger to such plans. Bounded by Routes 926 and 202, South New Street, and West Pleasant Grove Road in Westtown Township, the tract has reportedly been owned by the Robinson family since World War II. James K. Robinson III and David M. Robinson sold about 200 acres on the southwest corner of the family’s estate more than a decade ago, leading to the Brandywine at Thornbury subdivision, which doubled the population of Thornbury Township.

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.

 

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