What if Toll eyed Gettysburg?

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Some apologists for this taxpayer swindle will argue that we got open space for all the years the Robinsons were in the program, or they’ll defend the weak exit penalty with talk of “property rights.” This ignores history, of course, and the subsidy paid by smaller landowners to large landowners. Act 319 was intended to encourage permanent conservation. Passed shortly after the Environmental Rights Amendment was added to our state constitution in 1971, it reflected the new concern for the environment that infused the early 70s. The first Earth Day and the creation of the EPA happened just three years earlier. The PA General Assembly certainly could not have intended this program to be used by large land owners as a temporary tax haven while waiting for the right moment to cash in on their land even if that's what it has become. What’s more, there is no inalienable American constitutional right to convert your farm into a massive Toll Brothers “development.” This absurd concept of property rights has been foisted on the public by developers and their shills to justify their abuse of the landscape and to protect their profits. 

So how much have the Robinsons saved through Act 319 since the 70s on all the land they've owned and sold off along the 202 corridor? Likely millions. That’s money we had to pay instead. If Toll’s Colony gets approved, it’s money we’ll never get back. What we’ll get instead are higher taxes needed to cover new services for at least a thousand new residents from Toll's Colony. How much will Toll cost us in increases? That remains to be seen. But whatever it is, it's bound to hurt the head.   

Between Act 319 and Toll's business model, area taxpayers are being played for suckers

* This failing would have been fixed long ago if the Pennsylvania Builders Association didn’t outrank us in the state legislature. It’s accurate to say that the program has failed to conserve a single acre of land.

The various parcels of Crebilly Farm and their pre and post Act 319 assessements. Robinson's total property tax bill for all Crebilly Farm's 322 acres of open land is LESS than what most homeowners pay for a house on one acre. This hardly amounts to being "crushed by a heavy tax burden." 

A Seventh Heaven

-The American Farmland Trust

Toll Doesn't Want You to Know

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Unlike the vast majority of homeowners and landowners in Westtown, Chester County, or WCASD, the Robinsons actually paid significantly reduced property taxes for Crebilly Farm because of a 1974 PA tax abatement program called Act 319 (the “Clean and Green Program”). The stated intent of this act was to encourage owners of 10 or more acres to conserve their land in return for large property tax breaks (the average assessment is typically half of what it would otherwise be). However, no permanent conservation easements are placed on land in the program. It entirely depends on the goodwill of the landowners who choose to avail themselves of the tax breaks. For those landowners who never intend to develop their land, Act 319 is a very fair deal for everyone: the landowner gets a big tax break and taxpayers get the benefits of open space.

Please help us make this story become national news. Contact the national outlets below and tell them that part of the Brandywine Battlefield is threatened by Toll Brothers. 

Photo: Rob Lybeck

This laughable penalty pales in comparison to what’s in place in New York state. Withdrawing from one of that state’s preservation programs costs the landowner the last 10 years of unadjusted taxes – multiplied by five – plus interest. The New York state exit fee in many cases is greater than what was saved with lowered tax bills. Consequently, very few landowners leave that state’s program. Importantly, the absurdly weak exit cost for leaving Pennsylvania’s 319 actually cheats taxpayers twice. As mentioned, only a small fraction of tax revenue that was never paid is recouped. Second, taxes invariably increase as more people move to a township.

Back to Toll and myth number two. They would have you believe their Colony would be financially beneficial because of the increase in tax revenue for the township, county, and school district. While revenue would in fact increase, there are associated costs attached to that new revenue that Toll would prefer you not know about. According to separate well-regarded national studies by the
American Farmland Trust, the  Keystone Conservation Trust, and the Trust for Public Land (as well as by our own Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission), each dollar of revenue raised by a new residential development actually costs a taxing authority between $1.03 and $2. Townships, districts, and counties like Westtown, WCASD, and Chester County therefore, face higher tax bills when residential developers come to town. They add to the housing density of the municipality, SD, or county and that increased density triggers a need for more services and new costs which must be covered by existing taxpayers.

The Robinson mansion at Crebilly

The PA State Department of Agriculture doesn’t keep records of how many total acres have been in the Act 319 program since ‘74, but they report that 9.3 million acres are still enrolled (one third of Pa.’s 30 million acres). How many hundreds of thousands of acres have been developed over 40 years? They don’t know, but it represents a loss of local revenue in the billions.


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Toll Shoots B Movie

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The Big Swindle

For those landowners like the Robinsons who decide to cash in on their land, Act 319 is nothing more than a decades long tax holiday with an embarrassingly weak penalty charged for leaving the program. Even if the land had been enrolled since 1974, the “penalty” for leaving comes to just the sum of the last six years (plus the current year) of unadjusted taxes plus six percent interest.* When the Robinson family’s taxes on Crebilly Farm were massively reduced (see chart), the rest of us made up the difference. That is, to make up for revenue lost to Act 319, Westtown Township, Chester County, and West Chester Area School District had to collect more from everyone else to cover the revenue shortfall from what wasn’t being paid by the Robinsons (and other landowners in the program). If these Acme fortune heirs had paid taxes based on the full assessed value of

June 9, 2017

Written by Ken Hemphill

*     For just the open land on the property
**    At six acres, this parcel is not in Act 319
***  Total SD, twp, and county millage: 28.54

**** Total tax fees on 322.7 acres of open land

If you'd like to verify this information, visit:  https://arcweb.chesco.org/cv3  Click map image for larger view.

Whose brain doesn’t ache when it’s time to send that big piece of our yearly pie to our town, county, school district, state, and the federal government? It does hurt the head less, though, when we can see the essential services we get in return: Trash picked up. Roads paved and plowed. Kids educated. Fires fought. And so on. But no one likes paying higher taxes than necessary, or learning that someone else is not paying their fair share. It makes us feel like suckers, but that’s what we are now that the Robinsons (heirs to the Acme Markets fortune and inheritors of Crebilly Farm) have gotten into a contract with Toll Brothers to build their Colony of stucco shacks on land which experts conclude was part of the Battle of the Brandywine.

Crebilly Farm Tax Parcels

Neighbors for Crebilly

Tax rates are hitched to density. If they weren’t, the 80,000 people living in the eight square miles of Upper Darby Township would have some of the lowest taxes in the state. Instead, they have some of the highest along with all the problems of high density living: more crime, more congestion, strained services, expensive infrastructure. Lower density equals lower taxes: compare Pocopson Township to Westtown, Chester County to Delaware County, New Hampshire to New Jersey. West Chester Area School District understands this which is why they passed a resolution demanding $645,000/year for five years from Toll to pay for the large influx of new students to the district (if their Colony gets built).

“Many jurisdictions believe they will make money on the property taxes from new subdivisions, ignoring the true cost of schools, roads, police, water, and stormwater management. Studies show that it costs between $1.03 and $2 for every dollar of tax revenue to provide services to a typical subdivision, so current taxpayers end up subsidizing outsiders who bring increased traffic, crowded schools, and the loss of the community’s individual culture. It is also cheaper to protect clean water at its source than to build expensive water treatment facilities.”

If Toll’s and the Robinson’s plan to desecrate hallowed ground doesn’t get your dander up, maybe this will: you subsidized Crebilly Farm for decades and will pay even higher taxes if Toll builds their Colony. Naturally, these facts don't jibe with the two myths swirling around this deal. The first is that the Robinsons were overtaxed on their inherited 325 acre iconic farm and so were forced to sell to Toll to get out from under that burden. The second is that Toll’s Colony would benefit area taxpayers. Let’s start with the first myth.

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the land, everyone else’s tax bills would have been lower. Again, if they chose to stay in the program, this would continue to be a fair arrangement. Crebilly would not send students to schools or cars to roads; it wouldn’t need sewers, traffic lights, or police protection. But now that they’ve chosen to leave Act 319 by selling to Toll, their “penalty” is really ours.

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Possible talking points:

• Is the Brandywine Battlefield any less important than Pearl Harbor,

   Gettysburg, or any other hallowed ground?

• Should a corporation be allowed to profit from developing an

   important American battlefield?  

• Toll Brothers tried to develop land inside Valley Forge National

   Historical Park but were hugely oppposed by preservation

   groups.  What they're proposing to do at Crebilly is worse. There

   was no fighting at Valley Forge.

• To the news outlet: please help us generate national outrage at

   Toll's disregard for our history...

• How would veterans feel if they knew this is how an American

   corporation treated hallowed ground on which other veterans

   sacrificed their lives?

• Each generation we ask young men and women to join the armed

   services and to risk their lives for this country. Is it any way to

   honor them if we desecrate the battlefields of the past?