Crebilly Neighbors Save the Farm, But There’s This Bill to Pay
A conservation agreement with Natural Lands has been okayed. All that's needed now is to pay for it. That will require voter approval on November 8th.
Updated Nov.8, 10:27 a.m., to clarify that Westtown Township, not Natural Lands, will own the preserved Crebilly Farm parcel and to correct the amount of the property tax increase; it had been erroneously listed as $42 rather than 42 mills, or 42 cents per $1,000 (a mill is one-thousandth of a cent per $100 assessed valuation, or one cent per $1,000).
The six-year fight to keep Crebilly Farm in Chester County from sprouting a crop of tract houses is over, and Crebilly’s neighbors have won.
After briefly listing the entire 309-acre farmstead for sale at the beginning of the year after Westtown Township succeeded in stopping its sale to Toll Brothers, the Robinson family, descendants of the founder of Acme Markets and owners of the farm since 1937, has agreed to sell most of it to Westtown Township with grant-writing assistance the nonprofit open-space preservation group Natural Lands. The township will maintain 206 acres of the farm as open space for passive recreation. The parcel being preserved includes the land across which Hessian soldiers fighting for the Crown marched to engage American rebels in the Battle of Brandywine, only to have the Americans engage them first on this site.
According to the sale agreement the Westtown Township Board of Supervisors approved in April, Natural Lands will raise roughly 70 percent of the $20.8 million purchase price for the 206 acres through a mix of state and federal grants and private fundraising. Some of the grants Natural Lands will pursue require the land to be owned by a government, and that’s where Westtown Township comes in: It will chip in the remaining 30 percent of the cost, up to $7.5 million.
The remaining acreage has been split into four parcels that are being sold on the market subject to conservation restrictions included in the agreement.
One, which contains the farmhouse John Milner designed in 2000 as the primary residence, contains 15.8 acres and has a price tag of $3.8 million.
A second contains the chapel Milner designed for the family as well as an 1850 bank barn next to a pond and a 1950s ranch house that can be torn down and replaced with something more substantial. The asking price for this 25-acre parcel: $2.95 million.
The third parcel contains 38.5 acres of undeveloped land; any development that takes place on it will be subject to a conservation easement that allows the construction of one house on the property. It has a sale price of $2.5 million.
The fourth parcel, which includes the farm’s equestrian facilities and 25 acres of land, has an agreement pending for $2.7 million. The conservation easement permits the construction of a house on it as well.
So everyone’s happy, right? The Robinsons finally sell the farm, its neighbors and the township get a nice large park out of the deal, and Natural Lands adds 208 acres to the portfolio of preserved land it manages throughout the Philadelphia region.
Not so fast. Voters in Westtown must approve a pair of taxes to pay for the bonds it will issue to finance its 30 percent of the purchase price. That bond package will go before the voters Tuesday, November 8th, and some people in the area have organized to defeat it.
Efforts to reach opponents in time for this article proved fruitless, but the grounds for opposing the proposed open space preservation taxes have been circulated to Westtown residents in the form of flyers and emails, including one that went out under the logo of the Chester County Republican Committee that opponents had to walk back because the county GOP had taken no position on the issue.
The main points raised in opposition concern:
Increased taxes and municipal debt. According to opponents, who have formed a group called ROAR (Residents Opposed to Affirming the Referendum), local property taxes would rise by 12 percent and the township’s earned income tax would rise by eight percent if the referendum is approved. The opponents also claim that the referendum would double the amount of debt owed by the township to $20 million.
Loss of the farm as a farm. The opponents state that the sale of the farm would remove the 208 acres from the township’s 1,032-acre Agricultural Security Area. (It should be noted here that the Toll Brothers development would have removed all 309 acres from this area.)
Inadequate funds for site operation and maintenance. Opponents claim that Natural Lands’ proposed annual operating and maintenance budget of $136,000 is inadequate to properly maintain the field being acquired and that the actual cost of converting the site to passive recreational use would run as high as $2 million.
Safety concerns. According to a flyer circulated by ROAR, “Large public parks and open spaces throughout Chester County have become dangerous places because of vandalism, car break-ins, muggings and sexual assaults” and that there is no provision for added security in the operating and maintenance budget.
Richard Pomerantz, a Westtown Township supervisor who also serves as chair of the Westtown-East Goshen Police Commission, took issue with all of the opponents’ claims. Pomerantz, who supports the proposal as a private citizen, also served on the township Planning Commission as Toll Brothers’ development proposal for the farm was under review.
Pomerantz says that a ROAR representative made the public-safety claim when he read what he called a “manifesto” at a township Board of Supervisors meeting in April. “And rather than debate it with him, I called the police [chief]. First, she said she had no idea what the configuration of the open space will be. Second, she knows from experience that that characterization of open space and violent crime is incorrect.”
He acknowledges that “you could say there might have been some validity” to the farming objection “because the type of grants Natural Lands is going after preclude farming,” he continues. “But recently, within the last week, the head of the DCNR [the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources] has come out and said that actually is incorrect.
“For the first three years after the successful completion of the referendum” — the approximate amount of time Natural Lands will have to raise its share of the purchase price — “farming can continue. And Natural Lands has said publicly that their experience has been that farming can go on and has gone on at various places [where it owns open space] for up to seven years.” After that point, the objection does become valid, but again, Toll Brothers had proposed to turn the entire 309-acre farmstead into a subdivision.
And Pomerantz and supporters of the referendum argue that the taxes that would be needed to fund the additional schools and services the residents of that subdivision would need would be higher than what township residents will pay for the conservation bond.
As it stands in the proposal, the 0.8 percent earned income tax represents a 60 percent rise from its current level of 0.5 percent. The proposed increase of 42 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, proponents say, would cost the average Westtown property owner $185 per year.
Lisa Yakulis, the Kurfiss Sotheby’s International Realty agent who has been marketing the Crebilly property for the Robinson family, says that the Robinsons themselves played an instrumental role in bringing Natural Lands and the township together to save the farm after the township denied the conditional use permit Toll Brothers sought for the property. After publicly relisting the entire property for $34 million in January of this year, she says, “we received several offers from developers, and they were all over asking. They could have accepted any of them, but they were the ones who pushed to put together this deal.
“They’ve been there for generations and are a part of this community. They love this property and want nothing more than to have it saved. This referendum is an essential step to move things forward. Natural Lands has no doubt that they’re going to be able to accomplish the funding for the 208 acres.”
Yakulis also agrees with the Vote Yes advocates that the township would actually have to shell out more money to pay for the additional school capacity, roads and other services needed to support a subdivision on the site than it will to buy the open land and preserve it. “Bayard Rustin High School is already at capacity,” she says. Adding a few hundred more houses to its catchment would likely force the West Chester Area School District to build a fourth high school to accommodate both them and additional development in the district’s seven municipalities.
She also says that most of the people who attended a town hall meeting on the proposed sale at Rustin on October 24th as supportive of the referendum. For his part, Pomerantz characterized many of the No vote proponents as people who have a philosophical objection to paying higher taxes for anything, period.
“In any complex process like this one, there is bound to be some drama,” says Yakulis. And it looks like the drive to save Crebilly Farm will come to a dramatic conclusion tomorrow (Nov. 8th). Should the referendum fail to pass, what open space remains in Westtown will all but certainly become subdivisions, given the development pressure in the area. And both Yakulis and Pomerantz point out that the township won’t get a second chance to keep this space open.