Since 1998, Crebilly Farm, a scenic, historic swath of land in Westtown Township, has enjoyed substantial township, school and county tax breaks. Its benefactor? Clean and Green, a state program enacted in 1974 to encourage protection of Pennsylvania’s valuable farmland, forestland and open spaces.
Also known as Act 319, the program resulted in a school tax bill last year on the farm’s four tax parcels -- 301.5 acres of the 322-acre tract -- enrolled under Act 319 of $23,486. That amount represents less than half of the $52,281 that would have been due without the Act 319 enrollment. Members of the Robinson family, descendants of the co-founder of Acme supermarkets, paid $4,823 in county taxes, as opposed to $10,738. And the township received a $3,864 payment instead of $8,602.
Under Act 319, Crebilly Farm Family Associates, which owns the tract that abuts the intersection of Routes 202 and 926, saved nearly $40,000 in taxes last year. According to county tax records, Crebilly Farm has benefitted from the program for a couple of decades. To qualify for Act 319, the Robinsons simply needed an arrangement with a farmer so a tract of 10 acres or more would qualify as an agricultural use. The resulting cornfields generated an assessment of the land’s value as an active farm rather than its value on the commercial real estate market.
In December 2017, Westtown Township supervisors verbally denied a conditional-use application from Toll Brothers to build 317 new homes on the tract. The supervisors followed up with a written report in February of 2018 and Toll, which has an agreement of sale with the Robinsons contingent upon receiving township approval, appealed the decision to Chester County’s Court of Common Pleas. When that appeal failed, Toll appealed to Commonwealth Court, which took the case under advisement after a hearing in Pittsburgh on May 6, 2019. A decision is pending.
Opponents of the development, who cite a host of reasons the tract should be preserved, remain committed to trying to save it from the ravages of bulldozers. They have raised concerns about issues ranging from the plan’s myriad environmental impacts to the addition of many hundreds of drivers to an already congested area. Historians have also cited the property’s historic significance: Sept. 11, 1777, Hessian troops were reportedly spotted marching across Crebilly Farm from nearby Sandy Hollow, which saw heavy combat during the Battle of the Brandywine.
Critics of the Toll’s proposed subdivision are also wondering whether it’s time to retool Act 319, a state initiative that’s administered by the counties. To qualify, properties must have a minimum of 10 acres of farmland, forestland, or open space. Under the terms of Act 319, a change of ownership does not breach the program; however, a change of use does. If Toll Brothers prevails and begins to sell homes, the first residence sold on each of the four parcels in the program would trigger a rollback tax, which is equal to the tax savings for the past seven years plus six percent interest.
According to county officials, the penalty -- both the prospective Crebilly buyer and seller are aware of the penalty because they requested an estimate -- approximately $300,000 -- in advance of finalizing their contract. It would be paid by Toll since the developer would be the one changing the use. The money would then be apportioned to the county, township and school district.
Ken Hemphill, a spokesperson for Neighbors for Crebilly, an advocacy group opposed to Toll’s plans, called Crebilly’s role in the program a “big swindle.” Hemphill, who posted his research on Act 319 on his group’s Facebook page, said for years taxpayers picked up the tab for the Robinsons’ lower taxes. Now, if Toll gets its way, those same citizens will see tax hikes to pay for the extra services that more than 300 homes will generate.
Hemphill called Pennsylvania’s penalty for leaving Act 319 “embarrassingly weak.” By contrast, he said a similar program in New York State imposes an exit fee that in many cases exceeds the accrued tax benefits.
State Sen. Andy Dinniman suggested that it might be time to reevaluate Act 319, given the way it appears that some have enjoyed years of tax breaks “only to sell off the land and realize substantial financial benefits” later.
“This is not just a Chester County or a Crebilly Farm issue, as, according to news reports, plenty of similar situations have occurred across the Commonwealth,” said Dinniman. “In many instances, it seems like - at least initially- landowners entered Act 319 in good faith and with good intentions, but later the next generation – their children or grandchildren – decided to sell and reap the rewards.”
Dinniman said he is looking at options regarding Act 319, including legislation to close any loopholes and cure any unfairness associated with it. A landowner should not be able to lease the land while it accrues in value and then leave taxpayers “holding the bag. As always, it’s also best to remember that the way to permanently preserve land is through conservation easements,” Dinniman said.
Bill Gladden, executive director of the French & Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust, agreed that Act 319 is no substitute for permanent preservation. He said it was designed to prevent real estate taxes from forcing farmers to sell out to developers and has served a useful, but limited purpose. Increasing penalties could dissuade some landowners from participating, he cautioned.
Gladden, who previously ran Chester County’s Department of Open Space Preservation, said the public has benefitted over the years from Crebilly’s “beautiful, iconic landscape,” which has reflected magnificent sunsets on its pond and conjured up images of Revolutionary War history.
The recent Chester County report, “Return on the Environment” outlines the economic benefits the public receives from land preservation, Gladden said. Unfortunately, the financial benefit to landowners often depends on the availability of funds from multiple sources with different timelines and priorities. As a result, sometimes landowners do not have information on those benefits in time to fully consider conservation, Gladden said.
“Conservation is most likely to occur when the public and the landowner both receive and understand the benefits,” Gladden said, stressing the need for patience, perseverance, respect and open communication. “You won’t succeed 100 percent of the time, but in a place as special as Chester County, we have to try.”
Gladden said a surprising number of preserves in Chester County were once slated for development. Some were even saved at the 11thhour. That knowledge buoys preservationists like Mindy Rhodes, who organized Crebilly Farm Friends on Facebook, another grassroots advocacy group pushing for a better outcome than a mammoth subdivision.
Calling Crebilly Farm an “irreplaceable tract of land because it plays such a huge role in our national history and the Revolutionary War,” Rhodes said its imperiled status should encourage members of the community to invest their time in making their voices heard. Otherwise, Rhodes said, they can’t expect to hold townships and developers to the high standards needed “to preserve the integrity of unique land” like Crebilly Farm.
“It is the only way to maintain the values of what makes Chester County such a desirable place to live,” Rhodes said.