For the better part of two years, residents of one Chester County township have dug in and held firm, as steadfast and stubborn as the Continental Army soldiers whose legacy they’re trying to preserve. And, buoyed by two major victories, they show no sign of letting up any time soon.
Their battlefield is Crebilly Farm, 332 acres that saw action during the Revolutionary War, when Hessian soldiers marched over its rolling hills on their way to the nearby Battle of Brandywine, the largest single-day skirmish in the war. And their opponent is Toll Bros., the Horsham-based developer that wants to build 317 homes on the farm.
Toll was dealt a blow in late 2017, when the Westtown Township Board of Supervisors denied its application, saying the housing juggernaut had ignored key zoning requirements, including a mandated “collector road” to help alleviate traffic congestion. Months later, Toll appealed the decision to the County Court, which ruled in favor of the township.
Now, Toll has taken its appeal to the next level — Commonwealth Court — where a hearing is scheduled for Monday in Pittsburgh. And when Toll’s legal team presents the case, dozens of Chester County residents will be there, thanks to a planned bus trip to the Steel City.
“By getting people in the courtroom, we don’t want this to be a five-minute Monday afternoon sign-off,” said Randell Spackman, whose family has operated a farm of its own nearby for generations. “We want the judge to know how many people care about this and are committed to this, because the land is a space in our community and a resource that we want to protect as much as we can while being respectful to the rightful owners.”
Spackman is a member of Neighbors for Crebilly Farm, which formed not long after locals caught wind of Toll’s purchase agreement with the Robinson family, heirs to the Acme Markets fortune and Crebilly’s current owners. The neighbors are party to the appeal despite Toll’s efforts to remove them.
Toll’s lead attorney on the case, Gregg I. Adelman, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Besides the farm’s historical significance, the group cites quality-of-life issues they say the development would present. Significant focus has been given to increased traffic on already busy roads, environmental impacts from the construction, and the strain on the local school district, whose leaders have estimated it would will face more than $600,000 in annual expenses from the influx of new families.
“I won’t say our group is perfect. We don’t want to see anything change, and that kind of makes us a bunch of NIMBYs,” said Myron Grubaugh, a member of the group, who lives about 1,900 feet from Crebilly. “But that really is hallowed ground. The family is entitled to their rights to do what they want with their land, but that is history. And once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Both the Westtown Inn, a historic building on the property, and the farm itself were deemed eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to records provided by Howard Pollman, the director of external affairs for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
However, neither was placed on the register, he said. And even if they had been, such a designation wouldn’t protect the farm from being sold and developed.
The Robinsons, through their attorney, F. Warren Jacoby, declined to comment. But Jacoby said the family fully supports Toll’s appeal, and believes that Toll’s proposal to the township was and remains reasonable.
“Their family for generations has owned this tract, and they have spent a great deal of time and effort and money on it,” Jacoby said. “For reasons that are just private to them, they believe they would like to move on, and they’re disappointed that they’re not allowed to be able to do as they want, after giving it a great deal of consideration."
Jacoby declined to reveal how much Toll has agreed to pay for the land, which is carved into 11 separate parcels. And he said that while the family is “not insensitive” to their neighbors’ concerns, the continued activism hasn’t swayed them.
“We think the positions they’ve put forth are just not reasonable, and in some cases just not applicable within the law,” Jacoby said. “But we live in a democracy, and the Robinsons understand that people will say what they want to say, and that’s why we have a judicial system to comb through that and enforce the law.”
Toll’s plan is not the first a developer has proposed for Crebilly Farm. Two earlier proposals, in 2007 and 2015, were approved by the township supervisors, according to Township Manager Robert Pingar. But in both cases, the developers withdrew, citing financial issues.
Toll’s efforts have by far generated the most strident pushback from neighbors, Pingar said.
“We are very interested in what the public’s thoughts are on this, and we take them very seriously,” he said. “This has been a very open, transparent process from the beginning. The burden is always on the developer to prove that a proposal won’t impact traffic and historic resources. In this case, they did not.”
In a 53-page opinion released after the township supervisors’ denial, the three-member board said Toll “failed to comply with a number of relevant provisions of the township’s zoning ordinance,” and refused to acknowledge that its plan “detrimentally impacts the traffic” in the area.
Toll, in its appeal to Commonwealth Court, said the township’s requirement that a “collector road” be added to the development is “tantamount to unlawful taking without compensation” and accused the township of using its ordinances to “run around private property rights.”
Members of Neighbors for Crebilly Farm dispute that. They believe local land conservancies might be interested in buying at least part of the farm for preservation, but the development plans and ongoing litigation have prevented that.
Some residents have suggested that the township hold a referendum to see whether residents would support a tax increase to raise money to buy and preserve the land.
“We’re not farm chasers. We’re landowners ourselves, and we want the right to sell our land when it’s time,” said Vince Moro, one of the group’s cofounders. “But we have the resources, I believe, to create an outcome that is directed toward something positive for everyone involved. All we need is a willing landowner.”