Passion pervades planners’ Crebilly meeting

A schematic from Toll Brothers for Crebilly Farm shows a proposed layout of 319 homes.

A crowd of more than 250 packed the auditorium of Stetson Middle School primarily to express spirited opposition to Toll Brothers’ development plans for Crebilly Farm, a scenic 330-acre property that saw action during the Revolutionary War.

More than 250 area residents gathered at Stetson Middle School to learn about Toll Brothers' plans for Crebilly Farm.

More than 250 area residents gathered at Stetson Middle School to learn about Toll Brothers' plans for Crebilly Farm.

The meeting of the Westtown Township Planning Commission on Wednesday, Nov. 16, began with the Pledge of Allegiance. However, when Planning Commission Chairman Richard Pomerantz asked Toll Divisional President Andrew J. Semon to lead the pledge, the request elicited audible groans – sentiments that would recur throughout the three-hour session.

Pomerantz explained that the meeting would comprise multiple segments: an explanation of the conditional-use process, a description of Toll Brothers’ proposals, and comments and questions from the Planning Commission and the audience. The latter component dominated the meeting with more than 30 residents, the majority from Westtown Township, decrying the subdivision’s impact on historic resources, scenic vistas, traffic congestion, water quality, wildlife habitats, and municipal services.

Russell Hatton, vice-chairman of the Planning Commission, and Pomerantz explained that the Planning Commission would hold four public meetings that would lead to a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors. Hatton said he was pleased with the turnout, telling residents that they had an opportunity to help shape the outcome.

“We want what’s best for Westtown,” Hatton said, adding that he hoped the developer would listen to residents’ concerns.

Eugene Hough of Saving Hallowed Ground awaits his turn to speak.

Eugene Hough of Saving Hallowed Ground awaits his turn to speak.

Pomerantz likened the planners’ role to that of a jury that weighs evidence that ultimately goes to a judge – in this case, the Westtown Township Board of Supervisors. Pomerantz stressed that the Planning Commission would not interact with the supervisors during that process – and that the public shouldn’t, either.

He also stated that contrary to many residents’ beliefs, the township doesn’t have wide latitude. He said if the developer’s plans conform to the zoning ordinances and Comprehensive Plan – which has not been updated since 2001 – they would have to be approved, absent proof of a substantial, negative impact on the health, safety and welfare of residents.

“I wish we weren’t here and didn’t need to be here,” said Pomerantz. “The seeds of today were sown a long time ago.”

Pomerantz said that many residents had believed that one of the conservancies would swoop in and save the day, a theory perhaps “more phantom than real.” He pointed out that conserving a property requires a willing landowner.

Representatives of several area conservation organizations, speaking on condition that they not be identified since confidentiality typically plays a key role in negotiations, said they have reached out repeatedly to the Robinson family and remain willing to work with the family on a preservation option. Crebilly has reportedly been owned by the Robinsons, descendants of the co-founder of Acme supermarkets, since World War II.

As the site of the largest troop movement of the American Revolution, the Battle of Brandywine – portions of which are believed to have occurred at Crebilly Farm – 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.

Gregg I. Edelman, a Toll Brothers attorney, told the crowd that the developer would be seeking to balance the Robinsons’ property rights with neighbors' rights. He said the developer was aware of the historic and environmental assets of the property and had been in touch with representatives from Chester County and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

After the meeting, John Snook (left), an East Bradford Township supervisor and planner for the Brandywine Conservancy, chats with Toll representatives Greg and Andrew J. Semon.

After the meeting, John D. Snook (left), an East Bradford Township supervisor and senior adviser for the Brandywine Conservancy, chats with Toll representatives Greg I. Edelman and Andrew J. Semon.

Brian O’Leary, executive director of the Chester County Planning Commission, said last week that during a recent meeting with Toll Brothers’ representatives, he stressed that “there could be funds for preserving the battlefield portion (or all) of the property.”

Edelman and Semon outlined Toll’s three proposals, which include a plan that is permitted under township zoning to construct 317 homes: 200 single-family and 117 carriage-style. Two existing homes on the property would remain separate from the development, and an on-site sewer system would be part of the development. A modification of that plan seeks a reduction of the 60-foot buffer to 30 feet between the carriage-home buildings, and a third plan would add 395 homes: 152 single-family and 243 carriage homes.

The third option relies on a provision called “bonus density” that requires the developer to provide significant “public improvements” or enhancements to the township, such as roads, parks or sewer plants, in exchange for the higher number of units.

All three plans contain more than 190 acres of open space and four points of egress and ingress: a one-way access road onto southbound Route 202, two access roads on West Pleasant Grove Road, and a road that would intersect with Route 926 and require a traffic light.

Many of the residents who spoke decried the existing gridlock on the roads bordering Crebilly, congestion that would be exacerbated by the addition of another 400 to 700 vehicles. “I can guarantee you there is no one in this room that considers the [traffic] light an improvement,” said one Lake Drive resident, generating applause.

Other speakers delivered impassioned pleas to avoid marring the property’s scenic and historic resources. A West Chester University student and combat veteran said new research points to Crebilly as the location where the first shots were fired by Hessian forces. “When it’s lost, it’s lost forever,” he said.

Eugene Hough, attired in Revolutionary War garb, amplified that sentiment. A representative of Saving Hallowed Ground, part of a worldwide organization dedicated to the preservation of monuments and markers that commemorate veterans and patriots, Hough likened the layers of soil on the property to an onion that would continue to yield more archaeological significance.

Kristen Camp (center), the solicitor for the Westtown Township Planning Commission, confers with members after the meeting.

Kristen Camp (center), the solicitor for the Westtown Township Planning Commission, confers with members after the meeting.

Ken Lawson of Malvern urged residents to educate themselves about the importance of Crebilly, where the afternoon battle began, one of only six that involved Gen. George Washington and the one that changed the course of the war. “If you don’t think you can defeat this deal, you’re wrong,” Lawson said.

Mindy Rhodes, who grew up nearby and rode her horse on the property as a child, appealed to Toll to understand the passion that people have for sacred land that has national significance. “You’re going to take it away from us,” she said to the developer. “People need to know that you care about what we care about.”

Semon responded that the developer has reached out to the township in an effort to understand the public’s views. “What you see here may not be the end result,” Semon said of the plans. “At the end of the day, we are listening…”

But Doug Anderson, a Westtown resident, described the plan as “taking the Hope Diamond, cutting it into small pieces, and making costume jewelry out of it.”

A Thornbury Township resident wondered why Toll couldn’t settle for a fewer number of homes since it would still make a profit. Semon responded that Toll is proposing what the township allows. “We are developers; this is what we do,” he said.

A Westtown resident asked whether there would be a way to buy the property and “keep Crebilly and all of its history intact.“ Pomerantz responded that the deal between Toll and the Robinsons would not be finalized until the developer receives conditional-use approval.

“Until there’s an approval, its not a done deal,” Pomerantz said. His comment prompted a reaction from Kristin Camp, the commission’s solicitor. “Understand that there are legal rights Toll has,” she said.

Elizabeth Rhein Roche of Kennett Township identified herself as the co-chair of Neighbors For Crebilly, a local advocacy group “seeking to redirect the outcome of the recent sale of Crebilly Farm to Toll Brothers and hopefully preserve the 330-acre parcel as open and historic space. “

Crebilly Farm in Westtown Township is shown on Route 926. It is also bounded by West Pleasant Grove Road, New Street and Route 202.

Crebilly Farm in Westtown Township is shown on Route 926. It is also bounded by West Pleasant Grove Road, New Street and Route 202.

Addressing the Robinsons, Roche expressed gratitude for their stewardship of the property for many decades. “We’re not anti-development,” she said. “I’m a Realtor; I sell homes for a living.” However, she noted that the supervisors had failed to live up to their pledge 15 years ago in the township’s comprehensive plan to “direct growth and change in a manner that conserves the most important natural, scenic, agricultural and historic features and character of Westtown Township.”

Roche said Neighbors for Crebilly, which has a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/neighborsforcrebilly/, was looking for Westtown Township residents to help steer the present course into a mutually beneficial outcome for everyone. She also pointed out that many studies have shown that development spurs tax increases for local residents. She said a fundraising campaign would be established shortly at GoFundMe.com/crebilly-neighbors to cover legal counsel and outreach expenses.

The next Westtown Township Planning Commission meeting on Crebilly is scheduled for Dec. 15 and will include input from consultants commissioned by the Westtown Township Planning Commission. A third meeting will be scheduled in January, and the fourth will occur in late January or early February. The supervisors will begin their review on Monday, Feb. 6, Pomerantz said.

He said that that Toll’s plans and all other materials related to the development would be available for review on the township’s website, including minutes from the meetings. To access them, click here.

Scott Yaw, an attorney and member of the Planning Commission, urged the audience “to stay the course.” In the past, he said the first meeting generally attracts a crowd that diminishes by 50 percent at subsequent meetings until the fourth meeting doesn’t even require a larger venue.

“Trust me, we as a commission will listen closely and hear it all,” he said.

After the meeting, Westtown resident Andrew Colket, who can trace his family roots in Chester County back to the 1600s, lamented the potential erosion of the township's historic legacy. "It's very sad that we're going to be getting 700-plus residents who won't understand the traditional identity of Westtown Township," he said.

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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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