PhillyDeals: Taxing questions for a proposed Brandywine Creek Greenway

A Brandywine branch in West Caln Township.
A Brandywine branch in West Caln Township. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 21, 2014

Along both branches of Pennsylvania's Brandywine Creek - in 24 hilly communities west of Philadelphia - about 37,000 acres have been marked off-limits to development. Part is public parkland; most is owned by private landowners who have given up development rights in exchange for lower property taxes and other incentives.

The acreage covers nearly a quarter of the land in those communities, an area four times the size of Philadelphia's park system, including Fairmount Park. Is it enough?

The Brandywine Conservancy, a 47-year-old nonprofit backed by some of the area's biggest private landowners and a recent multimillion-dollar bequest from Richard Mellon Scaife, is working on a plan to connect those properties - through "strategic" additions, long-term planning, trail easements, and other programs - into a single Brandywine Creek Greenway, "a 30-mile-long conservation corridor that goes all the way from Chadds Ford to the Pennsylvania Highlands," said conservancy director Sherri Evans-Stanton.

Brandywine and other land conservancies backed an amendment to the state's open-space law, passed by the General Assembly last year, that allows municipalities such as East Bradford Township that impose open-space preservation taxes on workers and homeowners to use part of the money for maintenance, engineering, design, and other long-term land management, instead of limiting the funds to development-rights deals.

"We have all this open space. It's not just there to look at. You have to steward it," said Michael Lynch, township manager in East Bradford, which has set aside 60 percent of its land from development, mostly in conservation programs.

Planners for the conservancy, led by Sheila Fleming, are meeting with residents in each town this summer to discuss the Brandywine Greenway proposals. The effort is backed by state, county, and William Penn Foundation funding. (A schedule can be found at www.brandywinegreenway.org.)

Not all local officials want to see this open-space extension. Some leaders in East Nottingham Township, in southern Chester County outside the Brandywine Greenway area, have argued for ending a wage tax that helped buy development rights for nearly 1,000 acres. "We're very concerned about this," Evans-Stanton told me last week. "It might convince other municipalities to follow suit." Township employees referred me to Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott Blum, who didn't return calls.

In East Bradford, too, "residents have asked us, 'When you have acquired all the space, will you consider rescinding this tax?' " said township manager Lynch. But the township supervisors want to make sure there is funding for long-term plans to extend trails, watershed and slope protections, and other improvements even when there's little land left to add.

Conservation deals are paid for with a patchwork of public or tax-exempt finance negotiated with help from the Brandywine and other conservancies.

For example, according to conservancy spokesman Andrew Stewart, a farm family in Honey Brook Township recently sold development rights for cash raised from the Brandywine Conservancy, the Open Space Institute, Chester County's Brandywine Headwaters Preservation Program, the township - even the cash-strapped City of Wilmington, 40 miles away, which was persuaded to put money into the deal because it draws water from the Brandywine farther downstream.

I've heard developers complain Chester County is running out of land, that it's forcing growth-oriented young people to leave. Guy Ciarrocchi, president and CEO of the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry, said the county's big employers don't sound too worried: "The idea of quality of life and preserving open space is probably more integrated here," he told me. "Folks at Vanguard, QVC, and Victory Brewing stay because of the green space, the trails, the parks."

Even if it is getting hard to find "greenfield" building sites, that just pushes developers to renew the area's aging ex-industrial boroughs, Ciarrochi added.

"It's why you see the revitalization, people taking a second look, at Phoenixville, at Malvern, at Kennett Square. It's not a slowdown. It's a different type of development."


JoeD@phillynews.com

215-854-5194

@PhillyJoeD

www.inquirer.com/phillydeals

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