A pitched battle at Valley Forge A local zoning board approved plans to build a museum at the national park. Opponents vowed a court fight.

Posted: October 09, 2008

On Tuesday night, Cinda Waldbuesser carried two separate news releases into the room where the Lower Providence zoning board would decide whether to allow a museum complex to be built on private land inside Valley Forge national park.

In one release, Waldbuesser, of the National Parks Conservation Association, which opposes the project, applauded the board's decision to block the development.

In the other, she criticized the board's decision to let the museum complex proceed.

Waldbuesser knew before she walked into the auditorium that she probably wouldn't need the first release - and she was right.

The board ended months of debate by casting three separate ballots that effectively cleared the way for the project.

"Anyone who was sitting there and watching the proceedings could see hints of the way it would likely fall," Waldbuesser said yesterday. "We feel the decision was wrong."

From its start, on July 24, the proceeding has been a vociferous, sometimes volatile discussion about the future of Valley Forge - disguised as a zoning hearing. It was clear yesterday that the battle will continue in court.

Minutes after the vote, Tom Daly, president and CEO of the American Revolution Center, said he hoped the project's opponents would think hard before taking legal action, "think of what is best for the American people, and that is the restoration of Valley Forge to what it once was and can be again."

The American Revolution Center, known as ARC, earlier received preliminary township approval to build a three-story museum, a four-story conference center, and a trailhead structure on 78 acres it owns within the boundary of the park, on the north side of the Schuylkill.

The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) joined five local homeowners in filing a zoning appeal, foreseeing harm to wildlife habitat, drainage, cultural artifacts and natural resources.

In his closing argument on Tuesday, NPCA attorney Robert Rosenbaum pleaded with board members "to vote your conscience." Don't go along for unanimity's sake, he said, because, "This is going to be appealed."

ARC attorney Neil Sklaroff countered that the township ordinance that governs the project was "an example of sound, comprehensive planning" that deserved prompt endorsement.

The voting that followed was split.

The board voted, 3-2, that the appellants had legal standing to bring their appeal. But it voted, 4-1, against their claim that the ordinance constitutes spot zoning, illegal in Pennsylvania. And it voted, 5-0, to deny the claim that the ordinance preempted the ability of the National Park Service to manage the park.

"Look, it's a process," NPCA attorney James Greenfield said after the vote. And the hearing was one step.

All along, it was clear the opponents faced a high bar - asking members of the zoning board to overturn an ordinance endorsed by the township supervisors who appointed them.

ARC still needs final township approvals before it can turn the first spade of earth. And the sides have radically different visions of how the dispute might go forward - and how it might end.

The zoning board has 45 days to issue a written decision. After that, the NPCA and homeowners can appeal to Montgomery County Court.

ARC and its supporters believe they're on a winning streak, victorious before the supervisors and the zoning board.

If the NPCA files suit, ARC lawyers will doubtless try to make the group post a bond. That bond, based on potential damage to the project, could be in the millions of dollars.

ARC officials think that could stop the lawsuit in its tracks.

But the NPCA envisions a different scenario: An earlier effort to make the NPCA post a bond for its zoning appeal failed miserably, rejected by a Montgomery County judge. There's no reason to think it would succeed this time.

Once in court, NPCA advocates say, everything slows down. It could be a year before the case came to trial, and appeals could drag on afterward.

The longer the project is tied up in court, they think, the more likely it becomes that ARC will tire and withdraw - Yorktown, Va., already has been mentioned as a possible new home.

But ARC officials insist the project isn't going anywhere. After Tuesday's vote, Daly laid out plans for proceeding quickly at Valley Forge, site of the 1777-78 winter encampment of Washington's army.

The voting ended a hearing that played out over 12 sessions and 65 hours of testimony, and produced more than a hundred exhibits and thousands of pages of transcripts.

"It's a great day," said supervisors chairman Craig Dininny. "It's been a long time coming."

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

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