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Donated Open Spaces Can Be Development Targets in PA

Wed March 09, 2005 - Northeast Edition
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EAGLEVILLE, PA (AP) Land donated to Lower Providence Township as a space residents expected to be kept free of development is targeted just three years later for a two-lane road.

The patch of woods and wetlands in Montgomery County is the center of a kind of dispute becoming increasingly common in southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.

Voters in Philadelphia’s seven-county suburbs have approved spending $600 million since 1997 to save undeveloped land, according to a report Sunday, Feb. 27, in The Philadelphia Inquirer, but communities are nibbling away at those open spaces.

“It is not an issue to be taken lightly,” said Patty Elkis, an environmental planner of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. If such development attempts win approval, Elkis said, “The public will lose faith in government’s promise to preserve open space.”

In another pending Lower Providence dispute, the township has asked Montgomery County to partially lift a development ban at the 106-acre General Washington Country Club, which it purchased in 1993.

The purchase involved $1.2 million in county conservation grant money, and the township agreed to keep all but 9-acres green. Now it seeks an additional 8 acres for a plan to rebuild much of the club, in return offering a development ban on 19 acres across town along Perkiomen Creek.

Elsewhere, residents in Richland, Bucks County, have gone to court to stop construction of a township-approved YMCA on 15 acres of open space.

And in Cape May County, NJ, a branch of Atlantic Cape Community College is being built on 29 acres of parkland after litigation by environmental groups failed to block it.

Local officials said they sometimes have no choice but to build on green preserves.

“It’s nice to have the open space, but … things change in the community and the first responsibility of that municipality is the health, welfare and safety” of its citizens, said Elam Herr, assistant director of the Pennsylvania Association of Township Supervisors, which represents 1,457 municipalities.

Conservation advocates including Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter, are pushing for more state control over development of protected land, hoping to gain some control over what Tittel views as “open season on open space.”

The land that conservationists are watching in Lower Providence Township was acquired for $1 in 2002 from Cutler Development Group, in exchange for waiving zoning restrictions so that Cutler could build a high-density development elsewhere.

The tract just east of Evansburg State Park is a migratory stop for Louisiana water thrushes, warblers and woodpeckers, provides shelter for great horned owls, and was to be kept for “primarily passive recreation.”

Now the township has targeted the land for a $1-million project to reroute a sloping, curved section of Grange Avenue and replace an 80-year-old bridge judged unsafe for school buses and fire trucks. Township Manager Joe Dunbar said the road project is “the right thing to do to protect our residents.”

Those who have filed suit seek a public referendum, saying the land belongs to the citizens and the road can be upgraded without encroaching on the preserve.

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