Now, the battle over Valley Forge project Plans for a museum and a conference center are hotly contested.

Posted: July 24, 2008

More than a million visitors come each year to explore its rich Revolutionary War history, but the fact is that there's never been a battle fought at Valley Forge.

Until now.

Tonight, a conservation group and several local property owners plunge into what could be a long and contentious attempt to stop a nonprofit organization from building a museum and conference center on private land inside the national park.

"Our ultimate goal is to protect Valley Forge," said Cinda Waldbuesser, state program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), a Washington advocacy group.

The NPCA and five local petitioners have filed a zoning appeal with officials in Lower Providence Township, Montgomery County. The township has given the American Revolution Center at Valley Forge preliminary approval to proceed with plans for a big and highly controversial development.

The appeal contends that the project would trample the National Park Service's congressional mandate to manage and protect its lands. It also maintains that the ordinance governing the development constitutes "spot zoning," illegal in Pennsylvania.

At stake is the future of Valley Forge, in a profound and important debate dressed up as a zoning hearing.

The hearing is scheduled for 7 tonight at the Arcola Intermediate School in Eagleville. Thomas Daly, president and chief executive officer of the American Revolution Center (ARC), said he had no comment on tonight's meeting.

When first proposed nearly a decade ago, the museum was to be built near the park's welcome center as part of a public-private partnership. Everyone liked that idea. But the marriage between the National Park Service and the American Revolution Center fell apart last year amid disputes over fund-raising, management and control. Now ARC is moving ahead on its own.

ARC owns 78 acres on the north side of the Schuylkill, a pocket of property virtually surrounded by the national park. The group plans to build a three-story museum, a four-story conference center with up to 99 rooms of lodging, and a structure containing bathrooms.

Funding for the $150 million project has been pledged from state, county and private sources.

Historians say the commissary for the Continental Army's 1777-78 winter encampment was located to the north - though some experts dispute that - and that the area served as staging grounds for the army's departure.

ARC describes its project as a proud and worthwhile addition to Valley Forge: The first museum and education center dedicated to interpreting and promoting the story of the American Revolution, a natural in the Philadelphia region and a necessity in a nation that's largely illiterate about the war.

The museum and learning center, ARC officials say, will generate 855 jobs and $50 million in "economic impact." Most important, it will offer the full and compelling story of the Revolution and its legacy.

But ARC's opponents are numerous. What don't they like about the plan? Practically everything. They see the project as a fount of noise and pollution, the potential cause of untold ruination - from wrecking the park's bucolic settings to skewing the hydrology of nearby wetlands.

The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, a 640-member association of former rangers and superintendents, condemns the project as a Disney-style desecration of a national treasure.

"The whole ARC development is not a good idea for the park or its visitors," coalition chairman Bill Wade said in an interview. "The scope of the development suggests their motives are more than trying to run a high-quality museum."

In popular memory, Valley Forge looms as the darkest period of the Revolution, the site where George Washington's starving soldiers dropped one by one during a bitter winter. Dressed in rags, the poorly supplied troops huddled in crowded quarters where dysentery and pneumonia were rife.

In recent years, the Park Service has developed a more nuanced interpretation, painting the prevailing story as romanticized. It was disease, not cold or starvation, that claimed lives at Valley Forge. The soldiers' hardship could more accurately be described as "suffering as usual," the Park Service says.

Armies typically withdrew from battle during winter, the weather limiting their ability to mount military operations. Washington settled his troops at Valley Forge, 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia, where his men built 2,000 huts, miles of trenches, earthen forts, and a bridge across the Schuylkill.

"The sound that would have reached your ears on approaching the camp," the Park Service writes on its Web site, "was not that of a forlorn howling wind, but rather that of hammers, axes, saws and shovels at work."

That's a sound many park supporters hope they won't hear soon, at least not from the north side of the landscape.

"There are plenty of hotels in the area. We don't need another hotel. There are plenty of conference centers in the area. We don't need another conference center," said Don Naimoli, president of the 550-member Friends of Valley Forge.

He and others see an alternative: Return to the original plan of building a museum near the Visitor Center, where the land is not as historic and the infrastructure is already present.

"It will end up in the courts most likely," Naimoli said. "And it's a shame. This whole thing could be resolved."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8110 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

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