Future of estate divides developer and neighbors

Brennan Preine looks at the land, part of an area set aside by William Penn to provide Schuylkill access from a colonial manor.
Brennan Preine looks at the land, part of an area set aside by William Penn to provide Schuylkill access from a colonial manor. (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 10, 2014

After a decade of negotiations over the future of an old family estate, Montgomery County neighbors have a plan they hope will benefit everyone: "Let us buy it."

Residents of Springfield Township want to buy most of the estate and preserve it as open space, a strategic puzzle piece that could eventually link Wissahickon Valley Park and the Schuylkill River Trail.

At 42 acres, the Tecce Tract is the largest plot in the Springfield Panhandle, a three-mile-long, 1/3-mile-wide sliver that hearkens back to the 1600s, when William Penn carved out a route to the Schuylkill so travelers would not have to leave his "Mannor of Springfield" property.

Like most of the panhandle, the Tecce Tract remains largely open, with steep wooded slopes, grassy meadows, and the headwaters of Andorra Run, a stream that feeds into Wissahickon Creek.

Frederick C. Tecce, a Gladwyne lawyer and businessman, wants to develop the land with a 125-unit assisted living facility in the front and age-restricted homes in the back.

Neighbors, backed by environmental and recreation groups, said they don't object to the facility or the company that would build it, Atria Senior Living. But they say the township should get something in return for allowing the higher-density development in a residential area.

The neighbors are asking for three years to raise grants and donations to buy the other 30 acres of the property at fair market value - which they estimate at $2 million. If the neighbors succeed, they would turn it over to a conservation trust. If they fail, Tecce could return to his original plan and build his houses, said Brennan Preine, who is leading the neighbors' group.

Ross Weiss, an attorney for the owners, said Tecce has refused to meet with the neighbors "because of the absurdity of the proposal."

"The question is not whether Mr. Tecce is being greedy," Weiss said at a contentious hearing last month. The neighbors "are trying to use what everybody recognizes is an appropriate use of this property to justify driving down the density and creating what they call 'open space' and 'parkland' that will never be."

Weiss said he and his client don't believe the neighbors can raise the money, which would leave Tecce three more years behind on a property he's been trying to sell since at least 2004.

He also noted that under Tecce's latest proposal, more than 60 percent of the tract would remain as green space, but not public parkland.

Vote will be close

The tract, which fronts Ridge Pike and spills over to Whitemarsh Township, is the family estate where Tecce grew up. His father, a textile manufacturer and avid rider who sat on the state Thoroughbred Horse Racing Commission, bought the property in 1954.

Tecce and his sister, Mary Ann Frampton, inherited the property after their father died but have not lived there for decades - a fact that rankles the neighbors.

Tecce lives in Gladwyne with his wife, the singer Tonia Tecce. He was a major Republican fund-raiser and served on Gov. Tom Ridge's transition team. In 2006, he was one of the primary investors, along with Flyers owner Ed Snider and record producer Quincy Jones, in the Foxwoods Casino.

Frederick Tecce did not respond to requests for comment.

Springfield Township commissioners are expected to vote on Tecce's proposed zoning changes at their meeting on Wednesday. During last month's public hearing, the commissioners' questions indicated that the vote may be close.

The township Planning Commission in June recommended rejecting Tecce's plan and holding out for "a greater area of open space to be preserved." The county's Planning Commission, on the other hand, said the proposal is largely consistent with the township's master plan guidelines and should be approved.

Amy Samtmann, the commissioner whose ward includes the panhandle, had been sworn in only a day before the hearing. She said in an interview Friday that she was still reviewing the options.

Commissioner Jeff Harbison said he would prefer a lower-density use of the back portion of the lot.

"The neighbors' plans, as intriguing as they may or may not be, are not what we're voting on," Harbison said. "But it shows the board what other options are out there, should we vote no."

Weiss, responding to a question from Commissioner James Dailey, said if approval doesn't come soon, Atria may pull out of the agreement.

"I know where they are. They've worked on this for a year and a half," he said.

If it is denied, Weiss said, Tecce would revert to his previous plan, which doesn't need approval - building 52 age-restricted homes spread across the entire property.

Preine and his allies say Atria isn't the problem. But if it's going to be all or nothing, he said, they'd rather have the 52 homes.

Paul Meyer, executive director of the nearby Morris Arboretum, said he likes the residents' proposal and called it a realistic compromise to save an ecologically sensitive plot.

"From a conservation standpoint . . . it's one of the most sensitive pieces left," he said. "The neighbors' approach is that they've come up with some concrete alternatives. They're not out there saying, 'You can't build anything.' "

But for the Tecces, the conviction about doing what they want with their property goes back a long way.

In 1989, a decade before his death, Tecce's father was one of the few residents to speak against a zoning ordinance that would limit development on the panhandle.

"When we purchased this ground, it was zoned in a particular way," said the elder Fred Tecce, according to a report in The Inquirer. "It will be a hardship on my family if it changes [and] significantly reduces the value of that land."


jparks@philly.com

610-313-8117 @JS_Parks

www.inquirer.com/MontcoMemo

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