An elected official in Radnor is pushing for the township to cancel its lease with a cattle rancher on publicly owned land that had once been part of the sprawling Ardrossan estate, saying the deal helps wealthy landowners on other sections of the former estate take unfair advantage of tax breaks for agriculture.
Richard Booker’s motion, which he plans to introduce at a Board of Commissioners meeting on Nov. 22, would end the agreement that lets rancher Richard Billheim’s Fern Valley Farm use 71 acres of township-owned property for its beef cow operation in exchange for $1 a year.
Booker said in a memo with his motion that he decided to take action on the lease after reading an article published earlier this year by The Inquirer about the tax breaks at the former estate enabled by statewide agricultural-conservation programs under Act 319 — better known as “Clean and Green” — and Act 515.
The programs tax land for what it is worth as a working farm and not what its value would be if sold on the open market for housing, strip malls, or offices. Under Act 319, by far the most commonly used of the programs at Ardrossan and elsewhere, the land must produce $2,000 a year in farm goods.
At least two dozen parcels on more than 260 acres are successfully enrolled in the programs, accounting for more than 40% of the former Ardrossan estate’s acreage sold over the last quarter-century, according to an Inquirer analysis of Delaware County records.
Properties covered by the tax breaks include homes of a leader at a major real estate firm, members of the family that cofounded the Apple Vacations tour business, and the top-ranking member of the County Council for surrounding Delaware County.
The only known agricultural products coming from the enrolled land are the corn, soybeans, wheat, and hay grown there to feed Fern Valley’s cows.
While cows do graze on a portion of that land, most of their grass-munching is done on the township-owned property. To Booker, that means Radnor is helping private property owners get their tax breaks because those cows wouldn’t be there absent the generous lease.
He estimated that the program would save property owners more than $290,000 this year in taxes paid to the county, township and school district. (Booker’s estimate differs from that in The Inquirer’s earlier reporting; his uses a more recently updated school district tax rate.)
With some of those properties enrolled in the programs since at least the early 2000s, total savings to property owners over the years will have reached into the millions.
“While the Board of Commissioners cannot and does not oppose any individual availing themselves of the tax benefits afforded by Act 319 and Act 515, those benefits must be obtained through those individual property owners maintaining ‘active farming operations’ on their specific parcels — not through Radnor Township’s maintenance of farming operations,” Booker wrote in his memo.
Board of Commissioners President John Larkin said he found Booker’s effort to be wrongheaded and counter to the township’s interests. Booker is one of two Republicans on the seven-member panel.
“If passed, Rich’s proposal would incentivize more intensive use of the area, which generally results in greater taxpayer impact in the form of higher infrastructure costs,” he said. “It would also directly impact the taxpayers, because the township would then be forced to shoulder the cost of maintaining the public land that is now wholly maintained by the farm.”
Kate Wolff, Billheim’s wife and a spokesperson for Fern Valley, acknowledged that the cattle operation depends on its use of the township’s land. “We can’t run cattle if they don’t have grass to eat,” she said.
But she lamented that Booker’s motion, were it to pass, would cut her and her husband off from their livelihoods as farmers and put their eight employees out of work.
What’s more, “thousands and thousands of township residents who love and enjoy seeing this wonderful farm here in their home town will lose one of their greatest treasures,” Wolff said. “Our town is proud of this farm.”
The land that would eventually make up the Ardrossan estate’s more than 800 acres was assembled about a century ago by banking mogul Robert L. Montgomery, who went on to establish a dairy operation on the tract using prized Ayrshire cows imported from Scotland.
Oversight of the dairy eventually fell to Montgomery’s daughter, Helen Hope Montgomery Scott. She was the model for Katharine Hepburn’s quick-witted Tracy Lord in the 1940 film The Philadelphia Story and Ardrossan itself inspired the movie’s lush setting.
Billheim began helping raise the cows while they were under Helen Scott’s watch, working alongside his dairyman father. After the dairy cows were sold following Helen Scott’s death in 1995, Billheim worked out a deal with the Scott family to raise his own herd of beef cattle on the property.
Also around the time of Helen Scott’s death, her grandson, Edgar Scott III, began carving up and selling off pieces of the estate on behalf of his family’s trust in transactions involving millions of dollars in federal land-conservation tax breaks that left owners with exclusive access to their land. These were separate from the county and the local property tax break enabled by the agricultural programs.
Radnor Township bought its 71 acres from Edgar Scott in 2013, at the start of his final phase of federal-tax-break-fueled sales. The price for the land, spread across three parcels along Darby Paoli Road, was $11.7 million, paid for using township funds for open space and a temporary tax increase.
Two years later, township commissioners voted 4-2 to lease the township-owned land to Billheim, who had never stopped using former Ardrossan land for his cattle operation as it was sold off.
Proponents of the lease argued that letting Billheim stay on the township land would maintain the property’s bucolic, countrified scenery along the former estate’s fringe for neighbors and passing motorists.
Booker was one of those voting against it, not wanting to support a private business with virtually free use of public land. But it wasn’t until reading The Inquirer’s article in July that he began to suspect that the lease was tied to property tax breaks for agriculture enjoyed by owners of homes at the former estate.
John Snyder, a lawyer for Edgar Scott and on matters related to taxation at the former estate, said Booker is “way off base on his supposed facts” and provided a list of questions that he suggested should be posed to Booker to challenge his premise.
Properties enrolled in the agricultural program include ones owned by prominent business people such as Jeff Mullen, whose family cofounded Apple Vacations, and David Rubenstein, a founder of a realty group that owns the Wanamaker Building in Center City.
Another enrolled property is owned by an entity called Paint It Black LLC. It’s the residence of Delaware County Council Chairman Brian Zidek, voter records show. Zidek is also founder of Excess Reinsurance, an insurance underwriting agency, and Argo Capital Group, an investment firm.
Mullen, Rubenstein and Zidek did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Booker said in an interview that when property owners pay lower taxes under the agricultural program, others in the county and township have to pay more to make up the difference and Radnor shouldn’t be abetting that.
“I believe the light of day should be shined on this, we should vote on this, and the benefit being received should be made clear,” he said.