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At 312 sprawling acres, Crebilly Farm in Westtown Township is one of the largest remaining pieces of open space in Chester County. The historic tract was once part of the Battle of Brandywine during the Revolutionary War and for many, it serves as a reminder of simpler times.
More recently, Crebilly Farm was the frontline for a skirmish between construction companies and community members looking to stave off development.
Now, the final campaign will be at the polls in November in the form of a referendum. In order to save Crebilly Farm, Westtown Township entered into an agreement to buy 208 acres of it for $20.8 million. The current owners would divide the remaining land into four residential lots prohibited from further subdivision.
While township officials, with the help of a conservation group, are looking for grants to cover 75% of the costs, the agreement requires that township taxpayers pay the rest of the bill in the form of what supporters of the move call an Open Space Tax.
If the referendum passes, the local earned income tax rate would increase from 1% to 1.08% and the real estate tax rate would increase from 3.5 mills to 3.92 mills. The increase would generate $7.5 million in revenue for the township.
The tax and grants would give the township enough money to preserve Crebilly Farm once and for all.
“Pennsylvania state law, in general, doesn’t afford voters many opportunities to vote at the ballot box for public policy questions and this is one of the few examples of that. It’s truly direct democracy in action,” Township Manager Jon Altshul said.
He added that it is not a massive tax increase. A person earning $100,000 would pay $80 more in local earned income tax. The owner of a home assessed at the Westtown average of roughly $250,000 would pay an additional $105 in real estate taxes.
“That’s essentially the trade-off: environmental protection versus a slight increase in taxes,” Altshul said
The Robinson family, the founders of Acme Markets, currently owns the property. Over the past couple of decades, developers have made a handful of unsuccessful attempts to buy the massive parcel of land.
Toll Brothers, one of the largest construction companies in the country, came the closest to buying the property from the Robinson family. Over the last eight years, the company submitted two conditional use applications to develop the property. Township Supervisor Dick Pomerantz, a former member of the planning commission, remembers very vividly the public deliberations to convert Crebilly into a 319-home housing development.
“Crebilly has always attracted this real emotional response from those who are familiar with it, because of its sheer beauty. And there was almost like an anger in the public regarding that, suddenly, it was going to be turned into a housing development,” Pomerantz said.
The Westtown Township Board of Supervisors ended up rejecting Toll Brothers’ bid to buy the property in September 2021, quashing the agreement of sale.
Seeing the outpouring of support from those in favor of preserving Crebilly, the Robinsons turned to Natural Lands, the greater Philadelphia region’s oldest land conservation organization to seek a solution.
Natural Lands had been aware of the developmental back and forth for years at Crebilly.
“The Robinsons do want to sell the land. They’re unequivocal about that and they wanted to find a conservation solution. So we met with the landowners and tried to carve out a plan,” said Kirsten Werner, the senior director of communications for Natural Lands. “It involves a number of grants that our organization has applied for on behalf of Westtown Township — federal, state, and county grants.”
The grants would allow Crebilly Farm to be saved as a passive-use park and would prohibit farming on the property.
Werner is confident the group will secure the grants. However, even in the event the organization is successful, the purchase relies on the township securing the rest via the referendum.
The fund would cover the ongoing care of the park and some of the cost of creating the four conservation easements for the remaining 104 acres. The four conservation easements would allow a property owner to build a new home, but they couldn’t further subdivide the property into smaller lots.
Natural Lands has been working to educate the public on the tax.
“The open space tax is going to be a key portion. The whole project will fall apart if the referendum is not successful,” Werner said.
Groups of concerned citizens have started numerous organizations advocating for the referendum.
One such group is the political action committee Vote Yes to Save Crebilly. Adam Kapp, of Westtown, designed the website. He said that the township was once covered in rich farmland, but the rural character has been lost due to development.
While he said that more housing as a whole is a good thing, Kapp added that Crebilly Farm is the last of its kind and as such, has a special role to play in the future.
“Thinking back to my childhood until now, I can already notice changes that I think are related to a changing climate. And I think it’s really important at the local level, more important than ever, that we keep a local focus on how we can reduce emissions and reduce our footprint,” Kapp said.
With torrential rain becoming more common across the region, Kapp and Werner both emphasized that open space plays an important part in stormwater management.
“Preserving Crebilly as open space — as a regenerative, natural area — is one of our best chances, I think, to really reduce our footprint and have a sustainable future for residents of Westtown Township,” Kapp said.
Vote Yes to Save Crebilly is using its website to educate the public on the benefits of preservation, explain the language in the referendum, and argue that purchasing Crebilly will be cheaper for the township in the long run.
Pomerantz categorized himself as “fiscally prudent,” but he said that the municipality can afford it. He believes that it will be a challenge getting the referendum to pass. They have just months to capture the public’s attention.
“A referendum is the equivalent of a political campaign, but you’re not running against any individual. You need to educate and inform the public as to what are the factors involved, why you’re doing it, [and] what will the additional tax costs be,” he said.
He also finds it challenging from the perspective that he is an elected official who is being careful not to put his thumb on the scale. However, he doesn’t want to look back on this time and wonder what could’ve been.
“This is a beautiful, beautiful property that one just would not think is going to be [here]. Why here in Westtown? Well, it happens to be in Westtown. And I think that that’s part of this incredible opportunity,” Pomerantz said.