The Philadelphia Inquirer: Voters approve preservation of Crebilly Farm, one of Chesco’s biggest unprotected properties threatened by development
Land that has long seen battles, from the Revolution to modern courts, will now be preserved for hiking, biking and dog walking.
by Frank Kummer
Voters in Westtown, Chester County, overwhelmingly voted in favor of a referendum Tuesday approving a tax increase to preserve Crebilly Farm, which holds a small piece of American Revolution history.
The vote allows the municipality to purchase 206 acres of the farm for $20.8 million, which will be paid mostly through grants. But it also triggers the go-ahead for Natural Lands, a nonprofit trust, to raise money to purchase conservation easements on the remaining 102 acres and severely limit building on the property, helping keep most of the 308 acres of the farm intact.
“To say we are thrilled is something of an understatement,” said Oliver Bass, president of Natural Lands, which helped guide the township through the process. “For years, grassroots groups have been vocal about the importance of preserving this beautiful and ecologically important property.”
The parcel was one of the biggest remaining unprotected properties in the township and county and boasts a long history that led to continued efforts by residents over the years to save it from development.
The township-owned land would be turned into a nature preserve, although plans for how it will look have not finished. However, officials have said they are committed to ensuring it remains open to the public for passive uses such as hiking and dog walking — and that it will not be converted into athletic fields.
A piece of history
On Sept. 11, 1777, Continental Army Gen. Adam Stephen saw Hessian troops marching across what is now Crebilly Farm from his lookout atop Sandy Hollow, where the main fight of the Battle of Brandywine took place, according to Natural Lands. Stephen sent soldiers to skirmish with the Hessians in a fruitless effort to stop their advance. The British went on to win the biggest single-day battle of the American Revolution, and also went on to capture Philadelphia.
But more modern battles emerged over the land, most recently held by Crebilly Farm Family Associates, which is controlled by the Robinson family, scions of a cofounder of Acme Markets. The property is bordered by Routes 202 (Wilmington Pike) and 926 (Street Road), West Pleasant Grove Road, and South New Street.
Several years ago, Toll Brothers proposed building 317 homes on the farm, an agreement that not only ran into local resistance, but also legal trouble. The plan was abandoned, giving the township an opportunity.
In April 2022, the Westtown Township Board of Supervisors agreed to buy 206 acres of the much fought-over land and save it from being developed. Meanwhile, Natural Lands negotiated to buy conservation easements on the remaining 102 acres of the farm.
The township planned to use a mix of federal, state and county government grants, as well as fund-raising, to pay for the lion’s share of its purchase. However, the township still needed $7.5 million to pay its share and turned to tax payers in Tuesday’s ballot question on Tuesday. Voters approved it the measure 3,459 to 1,745.
What will it cost homeowners?
The referendum asked voters if they support increases to both the earned Income tax and real estate tax to raise the funds. According to the township, a household earning $100,000 would pay an additional $80 in local earned income tax. Meanwhile, a home with an assessed value of $250,000 would pay an additional $105 per year. The money raised would be used to secure bonds to pay for the township’s portion of the acquisition and continued maintenance of the farm.
The 102 acres that would fall under the Natural Lands’ conservation easement would remain privately owned and not open to the public. But the easement would stipulate that four lots of roughly 25 acres each cannot be subdivided or hold more than one home each.
Natural Lands expects to pay the Robinsons about $4.5 million for the easements. In return, the Robinsons can sell the lots, but the protective restrictions would carry over to any new owners. That acreage contains most of the property’s existing buildings and residences.
Natural Lands hopes to find about $25.5 million in grants to fund the purchases of the township owned land and its easements.
Kirsten Werner, a spokeswoman for Natural Lands said the nonprofit has already submitted applications for various grants. So far, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has awarded a $2 million grant, and Werner is optimistic Natural Lands will find its share of the money.
“We are optimistic that we will receive what we’ve asked for,” Werner said. “It can be frustrating, but it’s perfectly normal for the period of time between grant submission deadlines and award announcements to be many months.”