Hatboro residents group rails against plan to raze historic site

April Fox-Regan points to the close proximity of the proposed Wawa site (behind her) to Hatboro Borough Hall. With her is Heather Hamilton.
April Fox-Regan points to the close proximity of the proposed Wawa site (behind her) to Hatboro Borough Hall. With her is Heather Hamilton. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 01, 2012

Emmanuel Dungworth must have thought himself blessed when, in 1715, he chose the bank of the Pennypack Creek for his grist mill and millwright's house in the village known as the Billet.

There, along an Indian trail, were water to power the mill and patrons to buy the flour. Local lore has it that George Washington stopped by to purchase grain for his militia in 1777.

For nearly three centuries, the sturdy stone and wood buildings at Horsham and York Roads in what is now Hatboro have stood as a tangible link to the past.

But the link may soon be gone.

Wawa Inc. wants to raze the millwright's house and another building next door to build a supersize convenience store and gas station. Only the grist mill would be spared, as a donation to the community.

The project has hit a nerve in usually placid Hatboro, spawning a new 250-member residents' group dead-set against it.

"The residents are really, really upset," said activist April Fox-Regan. "A lot of people are saying they don't want the Wawa because of traffic and problems with flooding at that intersection.

"Hatboro is a beautiful, historic downtown. Many Revolutionary-era buildings have been destroyed in the past, so we don't want this."

Wawa promises to not only design the store to blend with the surrounding area, but to bring an estimated $6 million into the Montgomery County community through construction fees and storm water runoff improvements as well as the creation of 35 jobs, according to promotional literature.

"We have the greatest respect for the history of Hatboro and share that vision for the community," the brochure said.

But promises of an economic infusion are little comfort to historian David T. Shannon Jr.

"The reason that we're so alarmed at losing any of the buildings is that they are from the very beginnings of the town, and they've seen all this history evolve over 300 years," he said.

"You're losing the soul of the community. Nobody will be able to touch the oldest history of Hatboro because it will all have been replaced."

Wawa says it has not even bought the property for the proposed store. It has yet to file development plans or ask for the zoning variance that would be needed, said borough manager Steve Plaugher. The town council has taken no stance.

"The ball is in Wawa's court if they wish to file formal development plans or look somewhere else to put a store," Plaugher said.

During one such meeting in January, Wawa officials said the 5,102-square-foot store would include six gasoline pumps, with entrance from York Road. Flooding would be averted by building above the flood plain and increasing green space to absorb runoff, they said.

At a two-hour meeting Tuesday night that drew a standing-room-only crowd, speaker after speaker voiced opposition to the store in Hatboro.

"They talked about the history, flooding and traffic - a lot about traffic problems," Fox-Regan said. "Only one speaker was pro-Wawa."

The chain, which has another convenience store at 50 N. York Rd. less than a mile away, has vowed to cooperate with Hatboro police to curb loitering at the future site.

A month ago, when they heard of the Wawa plan, Fox-Regan, Toni Kistner, and Heather Hamilton responded by creating the Hatboro Residents' Association.

The group collected 900 signatures calling on Wawa to withdraw. They'd like to see the millwright's house, grist mill, and adjacent White Billet structure set aside for historic preservation.

The members point to Ambler, which has centered its revival on the refurbished Ambler Theater, dating to 1928. They believe only lack of money and political will stand in the way of a similar endeavor in Hatboro.

"Our intent is to fund-raise," Fox-Regan said. "We're talking to people connected to historic and preservation societies about bringing in grants and private donors."

The group hopes the old mill will become a museum and historic archive, and the White Billet a bed and breakfast. The millwright's house would continue to operate as a day spa, with the current proprietor buying the building, Fox-Regan said.

TD Bank owns the old mill and millwright's house. The White Billet is owned by a health care group. The mill and White Billet are vacant.

The petitioners realize saving the structures won't be easy. The buildings are not on the federal Register of Historic Places. Nor does the borough have in place any historic preservation ordinance.

"It's an uphill fight," said historian Shannon. "It comes down to money: Who's willing to invest in the past to preserve the future?


Contact Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8232 or bcook@phillynews.com.

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