The Nuclear Option
Open Space efforts in nearby townships
An open space referendum is long overdue in Westtown
34 other townships in Chester County have already gone this route
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News from your Neighbors
Written by Ken Hemphill
Photo: Tom Maher
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Of the 73 townships and boroughs in Chester County, 37 of them have floated bonds or used other funding tools to protect their vanishing landscapes. To pay for the bonds and other mechanisms, 35 of these municipalities over the last twenty years have asked their residents through ballot questions whether they wanted to enact a small separate tax to preserve open space. 31 out of 35 times, voters passed these measures with a few exceptions. In West Vincent, London Grove, East Nottingham, and Schuylkill Townships ballot question failed to pass the first time around. But in each of these cases, residents later passed an open space ballot question.
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What Chester County has accomplished in open space preservation is nothing short of remarkable. To date, Chesco’s Commissioners (with the able assistance of the Department of Open Space Preservation) have helped save 28% of the county. That’s more than 136,000 acres of permanently protected land, more than there is in all of Delaware County next door (and Chester County has no plans to stop at 28%!). This achievement was of course made possible by partnering with various townships who leveraged their own conservation funds with county monies to save land within their borders.
The effect of these open space balllot initiatives are plain to see. Drive through Willistown, East Bradford, Newlin, and dozens of other townships and you’ll see hundreds of acres of preserved land everywhere you go. It would be pretty hard to find someone living in these townships who opposed open space preservation. Who could be against a higher quality of life, less traffic, and overall lower property taxes (from fewer needed services)? What’s more, property values in these towns are markedly higher (and property taxes are markedly lower) than in places where little or no open space acquisitions have been made. Open space sends no children to school or cars to roads. Compare densely populated Upper Darby with the highest property taxes in the region to East Bradford with some of the lowest. Westtown should follow East Bradford's lead.
Westtown Township is most conspicuously absent from the list of municipalities which have preserved land through open space referenda. Westtown has never put a question on the ballot regarding open space preservation and it has never floated a bond (as far as we know) to preserve land. While neighboring townships have spent many millions each to protect their landscapes, the most that Westtown has spent comes to $500,000 (that we know of). This fact surprised us given how congested the township is and how many people came out to the Toll Brothers’ meetings for Crebilly Farm. It’s also surprising when you consider that substantial public support exists in Westtown for an open space bond/ballot iniative.
What some townships have done is astounding. East Bradford Township and Willistown Township have spent over $13 million and $10,000,000 respectively. These amounts do not include what they received from the county, state, or private groups. West Pikeland, Tredyffrin, Charlestown, and others have spent over $5,000,000 on projects over and above County open space funding which they were able to leverage by having their own large of pool of conservation funds. Two municipalities floated large open space bonds without going to voters first. Importantly, those townships faced no backlash from residents who clearly supported their township's land preservation efforts. The most notable of these two, Tredyffrin, floated a $10 million bond to create the 90 acre Wilson Farm Park to the delight of residents.
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The tax mechanisms have varied such that some municipalities have enacted a small earned income tax while others have instituted a tiny property tax increase. Those property tax increases have varied from two cents per $100 of assessed value to ten cents per $100. Over in Newlin Township, their tax amounted to 15 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. Earned income taxes range from one eighth of a percent in places like East Bradford and East Brandywine to half a percent in Upper Oxford and Honeybrook. While these sound like small numbers, these minuscule taxes have enabled townships to amass millions of dollars in preservation funds which, of course, have been dedicated exclusively for open space acquisition. Most importantly, these funds have enabled municipalities to get matching grants from the county and elsewhere to preserve specific parcels. Without these sources of open space funding, county and other funds would not be available.
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A ballot question would surely pass given the results of the recent Westtown survey which revealed that preserving remaining open space was a very high priority for residents One item, “[shall we] preserve remaining open space by supporting agricultural use and by promoting conservation efforts,” received the highest positive “vote,” with 71% marking “strongly agree.” 52% of those polled indicated support for using township funds or an open space tax to pay for preservation. This strong support should not go to waste. The Westtown supervisors need to place the question on this November's ballot and let township residents decide if protecting their quality of life is worth a minuscule additional tax. A “yes” from voters would give the township the means to contribute towards the purchase of Crebilly Farm which cannot be saved without the township’s participation in a consortium of buyers.
What one township can do, another can do. Crebilly Farm is not going to save itself and we certainly can’t expect the county, state, and private money to shoulder the entire bill when the time comes. Westtown is going to have to do its part like other townships have done. If you’re a Westtown resident, think for a moment of all the preserves you enjoy visiting that other township residents helped pay for. We think it's time Westtown residents did their part and protect what could be the crown jewel of the county park system. How wonderful it would be if sometime in the near future people from all over the county could stroll around the idyllic, rolling landscapes of Crebilly Farm or have a picnic in a pavilion surrounded by historic barns, houses, and outbuildings in a very densely populated part of Chester County? Sounds like a future to invest in.
Email the Westtown Supervisors and ask that they place an open space referendum on this November’s ballot:
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