Potential state aid for proposed Chesco development raises objections

Posted: September 30, 2010

The plans were in place, the approvals in hand. The path was clear for a developer to turn 606 acres of Chester County's ever-shrinking countryside into a tourist mecca, a sprawling resort with everything from carriage houses and a hotel to a golf course and a bowling alley.

But then word got out that the project known as Valhalla Brandywine was in line for a $20 million grant from the state's capital budget. And suddenly, a development billed as a stress-relieving paradise is raising blood pressures.

A local legislator says the $20 million should go to something more deserving. The powerful committee chairman who helped craft the capital budget says he "never heard" of the project. And a petition opposing the grant has gathered more than 500 signatures - along with comments such as "outrageous," "appalling," and "shameful."

One signer wrote, "Someone needs to explain why this for-profit spa should be paid for with Commonwealth money."

There's the rub, say critics of the capital-budget process in Harrisburg: No one explains much of anything. A legislator can add an item to the capital budget bill - even a multimillion-dollar item - and not put his name on it. The governor has vast discretion, as Gov. Rendell demonstrated by adding $2 million for a library to house the papers of his old friend, Sen. Arlen Specter.

To be sure, the bill has to jump through a few more legislative hoops, and Rendell gets to pare it down before he signs it. The state borrows the money by issuing bonds, and pays it back over time.

Even so, the proposed $20 million earmark for Valhalla Brandywine has reinflamed the ire of a self-styled watchdog group, Guardians of the Brandywine.

Spokeswoman Janice Keith said the group formed after Albert M. Greenfield 3d of Villanova announced plans to turn his family's historic property into a $360 million rural resort called Valhalla Brandywine.

Those plans include a wellness center, a hotel, restaurants, 275 "English village" houses, basketball and tennis courts, a pool, a skating rink, 20 miles of hiking and biking trails, and 18 holes of golf.

Keith said the Guardians group had decided not to appeal Wallace Township's decision last November, giving the project a green light. Instead the group contented itself with making sure the builders took various steps to limit the project's environmental impact - and honored their pledge not to add a casino.

"If it [the resort] didn't succeed, we didn't want to worry about gambling, especially since Rendell is a big proponent," Keith said.

Word of the proposed $20 million matching grant from Harrisburg set off new concerns. Was it the sort of project the state should help finance? Did developer Greenfield, scion of a famous real estate family, really need the help? And who put the word in for him in Harrisburg?

Keith said State Rep. Mike Gerber (D., Montgomery) told her that he and Greenfield were old friends, and that Gerber had added Valhalla - which isn't in his district - to the capital-budget bill.

In an e-mail, Gerber told The Inquirer that he remembered voicing support for the project.

"I do not know whether or not my expression of support is solely responsible for Valhalla's inclusion in the bill," his e-mail said. "Importantly, I do not have authority to release money for the project and will support the wishes of my colleagues who represent that part of Chester County."

One such colleague - Sen. John Rafferty Jr., a Republican whose district contains parts of Montgomery and Chester Counties and includes the Valhalla site - said he believed the project should not get top priority for funding in these tough times.

"I think it's more appropriate for money to go to community colleges and educational institutions or toward economic-development programs to help failing or downtrodden industrial parks," Rafferty said.

Greenfield said he had initiated his request through the office of State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. But Evans spokeswoman Johnna Pro said last week that Evans had "never heard of it."

Greenfield said he believed the capital-budget process - and his project - were misunderstood. He said developers must show that projects are shovel-ready and will generate jobs as well as tax revenue. He says Valhalla Brandywine will do both.

Keith countered that unemployment is low in Wallace Township. "We don't need those jobs, and there's no public transportation to bring people in," she said.

She said it was sad that a project such as Greenfield's could trump "a more deserving project in Coatesville or Norristown or Chester."

Greenfield said he had "known Mike [Gerber] since he was a baby," because of the Greenfield family's political history.

"I'm not a player; my grandfather was a huge player," Greenfield said. "My grandfather could make a call to the White House and talk to the president."

His Russian-born grandfather, the late Albert M. Greenfield, built a regionwide real estate empire. Greenfield noted that his father, too, had been politically active, serving for decades on Wallace Township boards as well as on county and state Democratic committees.

As for Greenfield 3d, he said he has never shared his relatives' passion for politics, supports campaign-finance reform, and rarely gives to campaigns. Records show he donated $6,250 to Rendell's gubernatorial campaign in 2002 - and $2,000 to Gerber's campaign funds since 2004.

Greenfield said his father was an ardent conservationist who planted 250,000 spruce and pine trees at the edge of the family estate - which was known as Valhalla Brandywine. The trees, now up to 70 feet tall, surround land from an original William Penn grant, he said, and will stay intact in the new Valhalla.

Though housing developers have lusted after the property for years, the family wanted to kept mostly pastoral, Greenfield said.

He said 200 acres - including the golf course - would be deeded to a conservancy for permanent protection and 66 acres would be developed, leaving 540 acres of open space. Seven miles are to be added to the county's popular Struble Trail at no cost.

Keith said her group remains concerned about water runoff from the development into nearby Brandywine Creek. "You can hire anyone to write favorable reports to get what you want," she said.

Greenfield takes issue with such suggestions, and with critics' description of Valhalla Brandywine as "ultraexclusive." He stresses that his goal is "to provide affordable wellness and recreation." Membership fees will be well below most country clubs, and activities will also be open to the public, he said.

"For less than the cost of the average vacation, a family can have access to year-round activities," he said.

He said he expected the project to generate more than 1,200 jobs, with an estimated payback of $23 million annually in tax revenue.

Asked last week if private projects such as Greenfield's and others in the capital budget deserved millions from the state, Rendell said that in these times, even developers need help. And the state reaps a benefit: jobs and taxes.

"If we stop investing in our own growth, in our own economic competitiveness, in our physical infrastructure, in our intellectual infrastructure," Rendell said, "we're cooked."

For Greenfield's part, he said Valhalla Brandywine would go forward by year's end with or without state help.

"We can still start," the developer said. "Just not to the degree that we'd like."

Contact staff writer Kathleen Brady Shea at 610-696-3815 or kbrady@phillynews.com.

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