At Foot Of Spring Mountain, Debating Its Use U. Salford Wants To Develop The South Slope, Densely. The Idea Has Foes.

Posted: April 23, 1995

UPPER SALFORD — The way amateur botanist Marcia Clouser tells it, humans have always been drawn to Spring Mountain.

In times past, a small family group of the Leni- Lenape used it as a winter weathering ground, sheltering from cold winds in its protective forest cover. They didn't leave much behind other than a flint gaff now kept in the back room of the Montgomery County Historical Society.

George Washington likely climbed Spring Mountain's gentle slopes to peer out for Redcoats while his troops wintered in nearby Valley Forge. No one has found anything he may have left.

Then came the late 19th-century industrialists, who lounged in cool summer breezes on the deck of a resort hotel erected for their pleasure. The resort has since tumbled to ruin, leaving a tangled pile of rusting stairs, water pipes and deck chairs to speak of its passing.

In the solitude that followed, nature commenced a vigorous effort to reclaim the land, which today harbors a wealth of wild plants and animals that environmentalists say should be preserved.

Now, as local officials prepare to update the township's comprehensive plan, Clouser and other environmentalists are imagining what could come next: screaming children and their parents, along with bicycles, cars, microwave ovens, telephones, asphalt and tightly packed townhouses and condominiums.

The township supervisors say putting high-density housing on the mountain's south slope makes sense: It's close to Route 29, it's close to the Borough of Schwenksville, and best of all, it's on the fringe of the township, where development would have the least impact.

"You're not filtering (development) through our narrow back roads that we would have to improve," said Township Supervisor Ken Hagey. He and the other supervisors will eventually have to consider a comprehensive plan forwarded by the township Planning Commission and county planning consultants.

Thirteen acres of the site are already zoned for high-density housing; the township is considering expanding the zone to 60 acres. A Planning Commission public hearing is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the township building on Salford Station Road.

Clouser says the township is making a big mistake with the rezoning because the mountain is a magnet for a wide variety of species fleeing pavement and homes throughout the rest of Montgomery County.

"We've seen it all around us," she said of development in neighboring townships that bulldozed animals' habitats. "We're kind of like the hole in the doughnut here, and we'd really like to keep it green."

A hike with Clouser through the mountain's boggy meadows and brightly flowered forest is like a ride in rush-hour traffic: Stop and go.

"Ooooh, what's that!" she exclaimed, whipping her head around after spying a flower.

A little green shoot like any other, it seemed. But to the trained observer, it was a Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), one of 561 flowers, shrubs, trees and other plants that Clouser has identified on the 45 acres that will make up the bulk of the high-density development district if the proposed comprehensive plan is approved.

Clouser also keeps track of the birds that drop in from time to time, some of which, she said, have dwindled to 10 percent of their population of 20 years ago.

"I didn't know anything about biology before I came out here," said the Kansas transplant, who moved to Upper Salford 21 years ago to teach literature at Ursinus College. "But there's so many fascinating things (on the mountain), it's hard to ignore."

"The mountain kind of draws you in," she said. "You have to look at the big picture to see the value of this place."

Community planner Peter Godfrey Jr., a registered landscape architect, said he was trained to see the big picture. An employee of the Montgomery County Planning Commission, which was contracted to help draft a new township comprehensive plan, Godfrey said it was important to consider more than nature when planning for development.

Besides plants and animals, he said, it is important to consider things such as historic merit, view corridors and proximity to developed areas when laying out a land-use map. And there are farms, historic villages and stream and forest corridors that should be spared from development before Spring Mountain, he said.

"It's a tough decision that they had to make," he said. "No matter what you decide in a situation like this, you're going to have people protesting it."

"The cost of this decision does not outweigh the benefits to the community further on down the road, in terms of keeping it out of court," Godfrey said.

Upper Salford, like many neighboring towns, has been under pressure from developers itching to build. The state courts have forced municipalities to provide a "fair share" of zoning for high-density - read low-cost - housing.

Builders have threatened to take municipalities to court for not providing enough space for, say, mobile home parks. The municipalities often negotiate, succumbing to offers of smaller developments of single-family homes.

So planning officials say that Spring Mountain, near already-built sewers in Schwenksville and along Route 29, is the safest place to put high-density development.

The south slope of Spring Mountain is far from pristine, Godfrey said.

"If that hotel had never been there," he said, "I think it would be a much better site for preservation."

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