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Radnor officials defeat measure to cancel ranch lease seen as aiding Ardrossan tax reductions

The decision leaves in place an agreement that Fern Valley Farm has said was vital to its 10-person operation.

A cow grazes on part of the former Ardrossan estate in Radnor near a lavish home. A local official tried to cancel a lease for the cows' owner to use township-owned land at the former estate, saying it's helping nearby homeowners get a tax break.
A cow grazes on part of the former Ardrossan estate in Radnor near a lavish home. A local official tried to cancel a lease for the cows' owner to use township-owned land at the former estate, saying it's helping nearby homeowners get a tax break.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Officials in Radnor have defeated a measure to cancel a lease on township land for a cattle operation that also helps residents on parts of the former Ardrossan estate save hundreds of thousands each year on their taxes.

In a 4-2 vote with one abstention, the township’s Board of Commissioners on Monday rejected member Richard Booker’s motion to terminate Fern Valley Farm’s $1-a-year lease to use 71 acres of publicly owned property for its 60-head Black Angus beef business.

The decision leaves in place an agreement that Fern Valley has said was vital to its 10-person operation, which also relies on feed crops grown on sections of the former estate that are now private homesteads.

Because of this reliance, Booker has argued that the lease is helping some of those private property owners claim property breaks available to land that is farmed.

Booker said at the sometimes combative hearing on Monday evening that this was not a good use of the land that Radnor paid $11.7 million to purchase in 2013 and now costs the township $600,000 a year in debt service payments.

“I don’t want anyone to lose their job or for the farm to go away,” said Booker, who is one of two Republicans on the seven-member panel. “What I do want is to get the township out of ... the business of farmland-assessment reductions it has been in for the last seven years.”

However, commissioner Lisa Borowski, a Democrat whose ward includes part of the former Ardrossan estate, said residents are benefiting from the deal.

“This is the last working farm in Delaware County,” she said. “We at Radnor have that. That is special.”

Borowski also said that the farmland-preservation programs give Ardrossan landowners an incentive not to subdivide and develop their large properties, which they could opt to do. This does not appear to be accurate, since all of the privately held properties enrolled in such programs are also covered by deals known as conservation easements that prohibit them from being further developed in perpetuity, according to an analysis of property records by The Inquirer.

When the former estate was first broken up, buyers of those properties qualified for federal tax breaks for land conservation thanks to those easements, as The Inquirer has reported.

Asked in an interview Tuesday about which properties she was referring to in her public remarks, Borowski referred the question to Township Solicitor John Rice. Rice said he had not performed an analysis that would identify such properties.

Kate Wolff, wife of Fern Valley founder Richard Billheim and a spokesperson for the business, said Tuesday that she disagreed with assertions made by Booker and other opponents of the lease at the hearing.

“Our farming operation bestows the township with the much-loved bucolic surroundings which was the very reason behind the purchase of this property,” she said. “Fern Valley Farm provides all the upkeep of this land at no cost to the township. Without our farming operation, the maintenance of this land would be an additional burden on township taxes.”

Booker said in a memo with his motion Monday that he decided to take action on the lease after The Inquirer’s reporting earlier this year 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. At least two dozen parcels on more than 260 acres are successfully enrolled in the programs, according to an Inquirer analysis of Delaware County records.

Properties covered by the tax breaks include homes of regional business leaders 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.

Booker estimated that the program would collectively save property owners more than $290,000 this year in taxes paid to the county, township, and school district.

“That amount is therefore shifted to all other ad valorem taxpayers in Delaware County and Radnor Township,” Booker said Monday, using a term denoting levies on assessed values of a property.

Sean Farhy, a Democrat, abstained from the final vote but voiced agreement with some of Booker’s points, saying it was unfair that others, such as a local Soccer Shots chapter, paid hefty fees to use township-owned property, while Fern Valley got to use its 71 acres across three tracts virtually for free.

At one point, Farhy came to Booker’s defense after Board President Jack Larkin urged Booker to speed through his comments. Farhy stood, shouting “Do not silence us,” as Larkin disabled Farhy’s microphone.

Larkin also bickered directly with Booker over the length of his remarks.

“Commissioner Booker, you’ve been talking for, like, nine years,” he said. “Just be done.”

“You’re a very rude and petulant, childlike person,” Booker responded.

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.

Fern Valley’s 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.

Radnor Township bought its 71 acres from Edgar Scott in 2013, at the start of his final phase of federal-tax-break-fueled sales. 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 the estate was sold off.