Margaret Mead said it best: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Henry David Thoreau was a champion for the environment in the 1800s, and today hundreds of groups in our area have blossomed in response to suburban sprawl, the re-purposing of real estate once classified as “open space” and increasing challenges to conservation easements and legal maneuvers exploiting eminent domain laws.
As the last farms are replaced with the predictable of shopping center chain stores, restaurants and high density housing, residents are mobilizing. Saving open space in the western Philadelphia suburbs and elsewhere is more successful than ever due to the ability of people to organize and learn about proposed developments much easier than in years past.
The desire to move to a more pleasant area to a house with a driveway and better schools, lower taxes is easy to understand. To accommodate demand, townships are increasingly facing pressures to break or change zoning codes as high density housing is built from the Main Line to Coatesville, in many cases obliterating the very “country” people are seeking. Increasing traffic congestion, overcrowding schools and demand for additional infrastructure are only a few of the effects of massive new construction. At a recent Realtor Summit in West Chester School District, Superintendent James Scanlon shared that an estimated 2700 new homes will built in the next five years that feed into district schools.
Only ten years ago, residents typically learned about new developments when they saw the builder’s For Sale sign and sales trailer go up on the property, long after it was approved. Today, thanks to social media, people are aware of changes coming to their neighborhoods and are making their voices heard.
After attending a few local meetings myself, I quickly learned that our Planning Commission as well as our Board of Supervisors are all volunteers. They are every day citizens with families, soccer practice and jobs. They can act in the best interest of the community, but need support if expected vote in line with community concerns. Attend a Planning commission meeting to understand how traffic studies are calculated and the impacts will surprise you! Yes, Amazon and UPS deliveries are counted in the traffic studies!!
When experts such as historians, environmentalists, or lawyers lend their expertise and become involved in reviewing development plans, there is a greater likelihood of responsible development.
Conservation Easements not a Guaranty of Safety from Eminent Domain
In 2016, the Haas family donated their family estate Stoneleigh, A Natural Garden, to the Natural Lands Trust. The property was protected from future development by a conservation easement, as the family wanted the property to be enjoyed by the public. Only two years later, this property made headlines when Lower Merion School District tried to acquire the property through eminent domain as the potential site for a new middle school and athletic fields. Thanks to a groundswell of local and regional support, the property was saved from acquisition and a new law was created as a result. The new law, Act 45, requires orphan’s court approval before any entity can seize land that is protected by a conservation easement.
There are countless examples of properties that have benefited from taxpayer subsidies only to be on the market for “for profit” development. Don Guanella in Marple Township and Crebilly Farm West Chester are two that come to mind. My attempt here is to help publicize the organizations of concerned citizens and groups that are protecting open spaces and inspire public involvement.
- Beaver Valley Preservation Alliance
- Brandywine Conservancy
- Darby Creek Association
- Friends of Ridley Creek State Park
- Friends of Glen Providence State Park
- Natural Lands Trust
- Friends of Heinz Refuge at Tinicum
- Pennsylvania Resources Council, Newtown Square
- Save Earles Lake, Newtown Square
- Save Marple Greenspace
- Save Middletown
- Transition Town Media
- Chester Ridley Crum Watersheds Association
- Crebilly Farm Friends
- French & Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust – Northern Chester County
- French Creek Valley Conservancy – Northern Chester County
- Land Conservancy for Southern Chester County
- Neighbors for Crebilly
- Willistown Conservation Trust
Individual Conservation vs. Systemic Conservation
As individuals we can decline plastic bags, recycle containers, cancel catalogs and shop at farmer’s markets. However, our efforts are no match for commercial interests that cut swaths of mature forests for housing, shopping centers and roads in a matter of hours, sending sediment into local streams and in some areas destroying last remaining forests and eliminating view-sheds. The good news is that people acquainted with the law know that at some point the destruction has to stop.
Article I, section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution provides as follows:
“The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”
So how does one decide what to become involved with and which groups? You don’t need to look far beyond Facebook to find a group or hear about a new development. However, once you’ve done your venting, you need to back it up with a seat in your public meetings. Sign up for your township email updates, read them and make sure you attend planning commission, zoning and supervisor meetings. You can also support organizations through donations, photography, writing, administrative assistance, expertise or whatever you can offer.
They key is asking questions and getting involved. As Mindy Rhodes aptly states in her blog, Crebilly Farm Friends, “if not you, then who?”