Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
History Quarterly Digital Archives

Source: July 1991 Volume 29 Number 3, Pages 123–129

The Open Land Conservancy

Mitsie Toland

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Before I get into the history of the Open Land Conservancy I would like to comment on some of the things Bob Helms pointed out [in the preceding article], even though chronologically this should come at the end of this presentation.

The Open Land Conservancy is also one of the nine organizations in the coalition to limit the expansion of the Warner quarry. Our interest is primarily an environmental one, concerned with the impact the quarry has on Valley Creek. The quarry is now pumping five million gallons of water a day into the creek, and its new permits would allow it to increase that to eleven million gallons a day. Since the total flow of the creek is now about eight million gallons, more than half the flow of the creek already is ground water pumped out of the quarry. It is a real concern.

Another threat to the creek has been the Knickerbocker land fill. Back in 1970 Dr. Ralph Heister, a biology teacher at Conestoga High School, and some of his students made a study of the creek. They found that just downstream from the Knickerbocker land fill there was very little life in the creek, but that there was a lot of life upstream from the landfill!

The landfill is located in a pit left by previous quarrying operations. We knew that for years it had been accepting industrial hazardous and toxic waste, and was in constant violation of its permits. We had reports of midnight dumpings from tank trucks with no markings on them, not only from Pennsylvania but from New Jersey and other states as well. (Some of the local trash haulers said that their shoes were disintegrating because of the stuff being put there!)

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When the owners of the landfill wanted to expand the landfill another 50 feet beyond the pit, we went to court. Working with the DER, we reached a settlement with the owners that would limit the dumping to municipal waste to be put only in the original pit, and also established a closure plan for the site.

Over the years individual people like Ralph Heister and Jerry and Dan Bulloch and other people have worked hard to protect Valley Creek. It is very difficult and very frustrating for a single person to do very much, but when you get several organizations working together to hammer away, you do have a chance of accomplishing something.

Yes, it can be quite frustrating. So many things happen that we often don't achieve what we want to -- but I also say that even if we lose 90%, we still win 10%. And that 10% is just enough to step us up to another level of public awareness. It makes the next battle a little easier, and maybe the next battle doesn't even take place because the message got out that there are groups that are ready to fight!

One of our environmental plusses in Tredyffrin Township today is the Environmental Advisory Council. It is something the Open Land Conservancy started promoting in 1984, and four years later the township finally accepted it. It is a group that is a part of the township's planning and review process; its members include, among others, the chairman of the Planning Commission, somebody from the Parks Board, and a representative from the Board of Supervisors. Dr. Heister was the Council's first chairman. Every plan submitted to the Planning Commission, every development plan, is reviewed for environmental problems. Anything that could affect the environment or open space preservation the Council has to review, and does review. It goes out to the site, and then makes recommendations which have to be listened to -- maybe not adhered to always, but at least listened to. Its creation is probably our number one accomplishment from our activist efforts.

Now let's get back to the history of the Open Land Conservancy. It is one of the oldest land trusts in the nation, although it wasn't always known by this name. We incorporated back in 1939 as the Chester County Horticultural Society. (That does not sound much like fighting landfills and quarries -- but it was a much different world in those days!) The incorporators inlcuded Howard Okie, who was the president; Mrs. Humbert C. Powell, who was the vice-president; Mrs. Thomas Lewis, the secretary; and W. Plunkett Stewart, who was treasurer. I think the name "Horticultural Society" was actually the name of an older group that had sort of discontinued, and that the old name was simply taken over by the group.

The reason the group was incorporated was because Miss Lydia B. Robinson, who lived on North Valley Road near the Trenton cut-off, wanted to give away almost 65 acres of land to preserve it as forest or woodland. Since there was no organization to give it to, the new Chester County Horticultural Society was formed, and a year later it received the land.

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It was a wonderful thing. Miss Robinson did a lot for conservation. (Her father was a vice-president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.) At their backdoor was their farm, the house on one side of the railroad and the race track on the other. The house was in the Italianate villa style; it was torn down about 15 years ago, though the family tried to preserve it. (I remember the curtains in the dining room. They were 100 years old, and Lydia Robinson's mother had bought them in Paris on her honeymoon. They were silk, and hanging there they still looked pretty good. There were a lot of antiques and interesting historical things in the house.)

Some years later, in 1972, we were given the 9.3-acre tract adjacent to the Robinson property that The Great Bear Tract, Inc. had bought back in 1913, and so we now have about 74 acres there altogether, on both sides of North Valley Road. The property is known as the Airdrie Forest Preserve, and is basically a mature oak-poplar forest, with steep stream valleys running down the hill to Little Valley Creek.

The second property we received is located in East Bradford township. About a year after Miss Robinson's gift, in 1941, Mr. and Mrs. John Abernethy of West Chester gave us a 1.7 acre tract, a little woodlot, on Copeland School Road. It is now being surrounded by development, but it is still sitting there, undisturbed, just as it has always been.

As a land trust, we are entrusted with these lands. It is our responsibility to assume stewardship over them, protecting them and giving some management to them. (In some cases we have also put in walking trails.) We assume a real responsibility when a family or someone gives us land and wants us to hold it forever as perpetual open space. We have to insure it; we have to make sure people don't encroach upon it, cut down the trees, or use it for dumping; and perhaps we even may have to go to court to defend it.

All this can become very expensive. Actually, our little group has never had much money to speak of. At one time, some time ago, we did make a selective cut in the Airdrie Forest Preserve and $7,000 worth of trees were cut and sold, which gave us a kitty to work with. That was before my time, however, and now we are of the opinion that since we are given the land to protect it this does not seem the proper way to treat it. As a result, when we acquire land now, and in the future, we ask for an endowment with the preserve. In that way we have an assurance that we can continue to manage it over the years.

For the next few years we were not very active. We had some meetings, but there is not yery much in our files to indicate that anything was really going on, and it was. more like a little club. In 1954 the Boy Scout cabin was built on the Airdrie Forest Preserve; it is the only building we have ever allowed to be built on any of our properties, and it is still being used.

Then in 1975 we acquired the Orr Nature Preserve. This land belonged to Virginia Orr, and nine acres of it were given to us by Mr. and Mrs. Robert A. Maes, Mrs. Orr's daughter and her husband. Some years later, in 1987,

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Todd Pohlig, a developer, gave us 19 acres of open space land on a parcel he was developing, the former Robert Scott farm, adjacent to the Orr Preserve. And last year [1990] the Conservancy made its first purchase, the 10-1/2 acre William Barrett property. We then put these three different pieces together to make up the Valley Creek Preserve [shown on the map on the opposite page]. But the start of it was the Orr property. The preserve is located on the floodplain and wetlands of Valley Creek, and a limited trail system provides access for fishing in the stream.

The development of the Orr property was one of the first in which the township permitted the concept of "cluster" development and lot averaging to preserve open space. From then on the Conservancy has had quite a role to play as the developers more and more clustered their buildings, putting them closer together, with the "left-over" land kept as open space. The open space that results from this cluster development can then be taken over by a homeowner's association, which can sometimes be a problem; it can be taken over by the township, which frequently uses it for baseball fields, with lights and traffic; or it can be given to a conservancy, to be kept and taken care of as open space. And so during the past five years or so we have been offered a good bit of land by developers -- and we have been delighted to get it.

Our next major acquisition was the Cool Valley Preserve. It is made up of land from two different properties; the upper part was part of the Kaltenthaler farm, while the lower part was part of the Elliott property. The six acres from the Kaltenthaler farm, straddling the creek in the woods there, was the gift of Mrs. Kaltenthaler in memory of her husband, Henry J. Kaltenthaler, in 1979. In that same year Ray Freyberger and the First Valley Forge Corporation, who were developing both properties, gave us another 27.4 acres, the open space resulting from the cluster development of the tract, making a total of a little over 33 acres altogether.

We also negotiated with Freyberger for an endowment for the preserve, and ended up with a small endowment based on the number of lots, up front as we took over the land. It gave us a little nest egg to use to work on the property. The Cool Valley Preserve now includes hiking trails through meadows and woodlands along Valley Creek.

(When Todd Pohlig gave us the 19 acres when he developed what is now the Overlook development -the Scott property I mentioned earlier that is now part of the Valley Creek Preserve - we also got an endowment. But when we found out that the houses were selling for $800,000 and $900,000, which we did not know at the time, we wished that we had asked for more!)

In addition to the income from endowments, we have membership dues and raise money in other ways. We especially encourage memberships from the people who live in the houses around each preserve, and also encourage them to keep an eye on things and report problems that may occur. Each preserve has its own committee and a chairman, with a responsibility to watch over it. In some cases it works pretty well; in others it doesn't.

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Some larger land trusts, who have big tracts of land in various places, do not become involved with the neighborhood. We feel that we are performing a public benefit by having our preserves and trails open to our neighbors and the public, subject to our rules and regulations. And our lands still are not taxed, though lands like ours are taxed in Delaware County. We believe that by keeping the land available to the public, with an educational thrust, with educational programs from time to time, we can continue not to be taxed. In other parts of Pennsylvania, and in other states, there is always somebody trying to tax non-profit lands, but if lands like ours were to be taxed it would put a lot of organizations out of business.

Fortunately, we are recognized by both the federal and state governments as a tax-free institution. In 1974 the Internal Revenue Service gave us tax-exempt status as a private operating foundation, and in 1976 the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue determined that we were a non-profit educational institution and charitable organization.

In 1974, incidentally, our name was changed from the Chester County Horticultural Society to the Chester County Open Land Conservancy, and ten years later we officially became the Open Land Conservancy of Chester County.

One of the nicest things that has happened to us was when Mr. and Mrs. Graeme Lorimer -- his father was the editor who developed The Saturday Evening Post and made it into the great magazine that it was -- decided that they wanted to give us some land. Their son was killed in Europe, and they were broken-hearted. To lift them out of their despondency they decided they would like to give a part of their farm, Magnet Stone Farm off LeBoutillier Road, to the Conservancy, and in 1980 they gave us 54 acres in memory of their son George. They did not want it to look like a park, with a large plaque or monument, so on a rock that was there they simply had sandblasted "To George, who loved this land, from those who loved him". It's a very nice inscription and the only thing you'll see there, but that's the way they wanted it, very low-key, very natural.

The Lorimers got quite excited about the project, and took part with us in the plans for the property. Mrs. Lorimer added another 16 acres to it in 1984, shortly after Mr. Lorimer died, and then just last year [1990] she gave us another 17.6 acres which includes a section of Valley Creek and a great big pond that always has herons on it. It also includes the barn and garage, a gate house, and a little spring house, and it's been a huge undertaking for us now to have buildings to take care of. It will be expensive, but we are hoping to get grants to do some of the structural work that is needed on the barn. The George Lorimer Nature Preserveis our jewel now, and I hope you all will visit it whenever you want to; you go north across the creek on North Valley Road, past the mill and up the hill, and shortly after the top of the hill is a parking lot and you can walk in from there.

One thing that I haven't mentioned are the conservation easements. In 1979, for example, Mr. and Mrs. H. Lea Hudson gave us a conservation easement on 39 acres of land along Valley Creek where they lived. An easement is now probably the number one tool for preserving land in the United States.

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For those who are not familiar with it, with this type of easement a land owner retains full title to the land -- it is still his or her property -- but grants the rights to do certain things, things like excavating, dumping, filling, clear cutting of timber, to a conservation group. (The donor of the easement gets a tax benefit, which can be the motivating factor; it is based on the value of the property without the easement compared with its value with the easement, the difference in the values being the basis for the tax deduction.) Actually, as a part of the agreement, these rights can never be exercised by anyone, as the conservation group accepting the easement also accepts the responsibility to see that none of these things will ever happen on the property.

Altogether, we now have about 83 acres under this type of easement in Tredyffrin and Easttown townships, and it is a really good tool. (The Brandywine Conservancy, I think, has something like 16,000 acres under easements of this type now.)

In our efforts to preserve open space and protect environmentally sensitive areas our main thrust right now is to preserve the Valley Creek corridor and adjacent lands. We are creating a chain of preserves along the creek, a corridor of open space where wildlife can concentrate, with natural vegetation along the stream that is good for the water supply.

We also consider ourselves as a force in the township to look at the world as a natural eco-system. It is a common tendency today not to like anything that is "messy". We have a mania for mowing and lawns. We have to fertilize everything, put chemicals on everything, make it look manicured, and if it looks like its getting away from us and a little wild it makes people feel embarrassed or awkward or "up-tight". But even though we are so developed and so paved and everything, all around us is nature, still doing its thing with "critters" and all sorts of plant life.

Our Conservancy has, I think, promoted a great deal of interest in the importance of letting things be natural, open areas and meadows, with a minimum of mowing. And by having people visit our preserves and enjoy them we think it does help get the message across that we should have a respect for the natural world and feel that we all are a part of it.


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