The NPCA has joined five Lower Providence property owners who are trying to stop the American Revolution Center at Valley Forge (ARC) from building a museum and conference center. ARC owns 78 acres on the north side of the Schuylkill, property that's virtually surrounded by national park land.
The contentiousness surrounding the proposal was evident at a grinding and frustrating Thursday night hearing that went on for hours and settled nothing.
ARC sees its development as a valuable addition to Valley Forge, offering the first museum and education center dedicated to the American Revolution, while critics deride the plan as a Disney-style desecration.
Thomas Daly, ARC's president and chief executive officer, declined to comment yesterday on the approval process. ARC's attorneys have asked a Montgomery County judge to make the petitioners post a bond to continue their challenge, and a hearing is set for Wednesday.
"We'll go through the Zoning Hearing Board, and if we lose at the zoning hearing board level, we'd plan to appeal to the courts," Cinda Waldbuesser, state program manager of the NPCA, said yesterday. "That's the main direction I see this heading."
The township gave ARC preliminary approval to proceed with a three-story museum, a four-story conference center with up to 99 rooms of lodging, and a trailhead structure containing bike racks, maps and bathrooms. The NPCA and local land-owners filed a zoning appeal, saying the project would trample the National Park Service's federal mandate to manage and protect its lands, and that the ordinance governing the development constitutes "spot zoning," illegal in Pennsylvania.
On Thursday night, in the cavernous auditorium of the Arcola Intermediate School in Eagleville, zoning board Solicitor Charles Mandracchia listened as attorneys for the sides debated procedural issues and each other. "We could go back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth," he said, "with lawyers making arguments all night long."
At times it seemed they would.
After nearly four hours, testimony had been given by precisely one witness, frustrating many in the crowd of 75 who had come to hear and offer comment. The hearing never approached the heart of what is at stake: The future of Valley Forge, an iconic local attraction and an integral piece of American history, site of the soul-trying, 1777-78 winter encampment of George Washington's Continental Army.
Petitioners' attorney Robert Rosenbaum sought the recusal of two of the five board members for having made statements he believed favorably pre-judged ARC's plan.
"I can be impartial. I will be impartial," pledged Chairwoman Janice Kearney.
"I know I can be impartial," said board member William Donovan.
Then the entire board promised to be impartial.
Nobody was recused.
Meanwhile, a balky microphone system alternated between reducing speakers' voices to whispers and blasting spectators out of their seats with noise.
The hearing is structured much like a trial, with both sides calling witnesses, introducing evidence and making arguments. The sole witness to speak, called by the conservation group, was landscape architect Colleen Eckman, who said the development could cause soil erosion that might harm nearby wetlands.
ARC attorney Neil Sklaroff challenged the right of the NPCA to join the appeal. He said the appellants would offer only "speculation and opinion."
"This is not really a zoning case," he said. "It's a complaint about the project."
The hearing resumes Aug. 12, with every chance it will continue beyond that date.
ARC says its project will generate 855 jobs and $50 million in annual economic impact, drawing visitors to learn the compelling story of the Revolution. But the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees and the Friends of Valley Forge believe the project will damage the park, causing noise and pollution, and ruining sanctuary-like settings.
"Looking ahead a hundred years, what will people say about the decisions that are made now?" Oakes said. "The museum of the American Revolution plans to talk about the entire Revolution, so it has some choices about where it can be. Valley Forge National Historical Park and the Continental Army encampment happened in one place. It doesn't have a choice."
Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8110 or email@example.com.