Battle lines redrawn at Crebilly Farm meeting

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Russell Hatton, vice chairman of the planning commission, addressing the audience. Behind him are other members of the commission.

The Westtown Township Planning Commission provided a lesson in Revolutionary War history and corporate economics to an audience of nearly 300 at Stetson Middle School.

The crowd gathered at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 15, for the second of four public meetings designed to provide the planners with information regarding a 300-plus-unit development proposed for Crebilly Farm. The planning commission will ultimately make a recommendation to the township’s board of supervisors.

The 322-acre property, which has been owned by the Robinson family, descendants of the co-founder of Acme supermarkets, since World War II, is under an agreement of sale with Toll Brothers. Although the deal will not be finalized until Toll Brothers receives conditional-use approval, township officials have said repeatedly that the developer’s proposals comply with existing township ordinances.

The planners have stressed that the subdivision may have to be approved, despite their distaste for it, but they have also urged members of the community to voice their concerns and pledged to take them into account. Both Richard Pomerantz, who chairs the commission, and Russell Hatton, its vice-chairman, referred to Crebilly as “the iconic centerpiece of the township.”

Pomerantz generated applause when he said he hoped that the commission would be able to look back on whatever decision was made with the knowledge that it did everything it could to protect a tract that “reflects the soul and moral value of the community.”

As promised, the bulk of Thursday’s meeting involved presentations by consultants commissioned by the planning commission. Sean Moir, president of Western Heritage Mapping, began the education by outlining new research on the Battle of the Brandywine.

The audience listens to a presentation of the Crebilly Farm plan options during a Westtown Township Planning Commission meeting held at Stetson Middle School.
The audience listens to a presentation of the Crebilly Farm plan options during a Westtown Township Planning Commission meeting held at Stetson Middle School.

Using an interactive map, Moir showed about 300 Hessians traversing nearly half of Crebilly Farm. After firing at a small number of American troops for about half an hour, he illustrated how they proceeded to nearby Sandy Hollow, where the fiercest fighting occurred.

Moir suggested that more analysis, such as the use of ground-penetrating radar, was warranted. “This property was part of the battle,” he stated.

Dave Walter, who chairs the Westtown Township Historic Commission, provided an overview of the historic buildings on Crebilly Farm, including several homes, a barn, a stable and a chapel.

According to Walter, the building with the most storied history sits adjacent to the corner of Routes 202 and 926. The former Westtown Inn, a green serpentine building that dates back to 1823, was the scene of political rallies as well as a popular stopping place for drovers en route to Philadelphia with their cattle.

Andrew J. Semon, a divisional president for Toll Brothers, said the developer plans to save many, but not all, of the historic structures. He said it was too early to know whether they would be owned by the homeowners’ association or some other entity, such as an advocacy group.

After learning that members of the historic commission had not been able to tour the buildings to obtain the best information, Pomerantz asked Semon whether such access could be granted. “I can’t answer until I talk to the owners,” Semon responded.

Finally, the planners heard from John Snook, a senior adviser for the Brandywine Conservancy and an East Bradford Township supervisor. Snook made multiple recommendations.

He noted that the Chester County Planning Commission had reviewed Toll’s three proposals. One includes a plan that is permitted under township zoning to construct 317 homes: 200 single-family and 117 carriage-style. 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.

Snook said the county took the unusual step of providing an alternate plan that moved the homes closer to Route 202, preserving more of the battlefield area, an option Snook applauded. He also suggested that the smaller buffer requirement would give Toll the flexibility to create more meaningful open space rather than the slivers that the current plans offer.

The higher-density plan might be worth considering if Toll Brothers would agree to construct a connector road that would run from the Stetson Middle School circle to Bridlewood Drive off of Route 926, he said. Snook suggested that might provide the only way to mitigate the traffic congestion that the development would exacerbate.

He said the developer has an obligation to protect the property’s most scenic vistas, and he ended his presentation by reading a section of the state Constitution:

“The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all of the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people."

In response to questions from the planners, Snook said that sometimes developers are easier to work with than landowners on conservation agreements, especially in a situation where different parts of a tract are owned by different members of a family.

Following up some comments about the rancor Toll Brothers has generated recently for its handling of Jewelers’ Row in Philadelphia, Steve Rodia, a member of the Westtown Township Planning Commission, inquired about whether the company has a policy regarding historic preservation.

“I have a contractual obligation, and at this time it’s not on the table,” said Semon. Asked after the meeting whether his obligation was to his employer or the Robinsons, he responded, “the agreement of sale.”

By the time Pomerantz opened the floor to questions a little before 10 p.m., the audience had shrunk to about 75, but more than a dozen people spoke, all of them expressing concerns or outright opposition to Toll Brothers’ plan.

“I’m scared,” said Bill Vosburg, explaining that once construction begins, there’s no going back. Referencing the drawings, he said, “This looks like a mini city.”

Patrick S. McDonough, a senior associate at John Milner Architects, noted that if the commission wants information about how Toll Brothers operates, they should study the material on “Out of 80 comments, 76 are negative,” McDonough said.

Elizabeth Rhein Roche, co-chair of Neighbors For Crebilly, a local advocacy group that has a Facebook page, urged members of the audience pick up a handout from her that explains the economic benefits of open space.

“Development ends up costing taxpayers more,” she said. “Think about the tax implications of allowing your population to increase by 10 percent.”

Concluding the session, Pomerantz asked Semon what changes, if any, that Toll had made in response to the feedback from the public and the township.

Semon said that he and his colleagues had heard a lot but wouldn’t tweak the plan from week to week. He said the initial plan took the township’s concerns into account. “There’s not an overhaul here; there’s a massaging,” he said.

Pomerantz said the next meeting would be held on Jan. 10 at 6:30 p.m., probably at Rustin High School. The focus will be on infrastructure, such as roads and sewers.

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


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