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A $3M donation will preserve 24 acres of fought-over woods in Roxborough

The nonprofit Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education announced the gift Wednesday that will be used to preserve what's known locally as the Boy Scout tract.

A drone view of land near the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education that will be preserved near Port Royal Avenue and Eva Street in the Upper Roxborough section of Philadelphia.
A drone view of land near the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education that will be preserved near Port Royal Avenue and Eva Street in the Upper Roxborough section of Philadelphia.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Anonymous donors have pledged $3 million through a charitable fund to preserve 24 acres of woods in Philadelphia’s Upper Roxborough section owned by the nonprofit Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education — a relief to neighbors who had furiously pushed back against potential development of the site.

The center had proposed selling the tract, which was once a Boy Scout campground, to raise millions for improvements needed to its buildings and operations. But tracts of undeveloped land are rare in the city, and the proposal, which would have led to any development, however limited, was met with stiff resistance by residents of Upper Roxborough and Shawmont Valley in Northwest Philly.

The money to preserve the parcel at Port Royal Avenue and Eva Street will come from donations to Vanguard Charitable, a national philanthropic fund. The donors will remain anonymous, according to an announcement of the deal by the Schuylkill Center.

“I can’t imagine a more welcome solution,” said Rich Giordano, president of the Upper Roxborough Civic Association.

How preservation would work

The center will restrict use of the land through a conservation easement with Natural Lands, a large land trust. The easement will permanently prohibit development, regardless of any future owner.

Natural Lands holds a similar easement on the center’s 340-acre main campus between the Schuylkill and Wissahickon Valley Park — the largest privately preserved tract in the city. There, the Schuylkill Center, founded in 1965, offers programs in environmental education, art, land stewardship, as well as summer camps. It also operates a wildlife clinic.

» READ MORE: Plan to sell off former scout camp for development in Roxborough rattles neighbors

Known locally as the Boy Scout tract, the adjacent land with several steep slopes was donated to the center more than 40 years ago by one of its founding families but has never been used or developed.

Mike Weilbacher, the center’s executive director, had said previously that the center, which is funded by grants, contributions, and program revenue, doesn’t have the financial ability to maintain that land.

Neighbors rallied against development to preserve not only the land, but the area’s rural vibe created by the concentration of the scout tract, the center’s already large wooded land holdings, and the adjacent Upper Roxborough Reservoir. Green Tree Run flows through the scout tract, and a nearby “Toad Detour” protects amphibians crossing the road each spring.

“We’re thrilled that we are able to protect the property in perpetuity and at the same time have a transformational gift for the Schuylkill Center,” Weilbacher said Tuesday. “It’s a win-win for the community and Schuylkill Center.”

Weilbacher said that the center needs more than $5 million in improvements and that the donation will go toward some of that. The center, he said, also wants in invest in “our wonderful people” who work there, but “we’re only beginning the conversation about what that means.”

“They’re the ones who make the land come alive,” he said of staff.

Christopher P. McGill, president of the center’s board of trustees, said the “gift will have a significant impact for generations to come.”

“We are incredibly grateful for the generosity of the donors,” McGill said.

How the donation came about

The center had previously been unsuccessful in seeking grants to preserve the land. So officials announced in June that they were requesting potential buyers to submit proposals to keep building at a minimum. The land is zoned for single- and multifamily homes, passive recreation, adult and child care, community centers, and community gardens or farms.

After news coverage of the development proposal, Vanguard Charitable reached out with the possibility of making a sizable donation to preserve the land, McGill said. The center pulled the proposal until a deal could be sealed.

» READ MORE: Schuylkill Center: ‘Boy Scout’ tract could be preserved, controversial development plan put on hold

McGill said the conservation easement with Natural Lands would take six to nine months to complete. Vanguard Charitable will give $3 million to the center when the easement is signed.

McGill said there is no immediate plan for how the center would use the scout tract, if at all.

He said a board committee would decide how the new funds will be spent.

Elaine Kenig, director of communications and strategy at Vanguard Charitable, said in a statement that the “extraordinary grant will enrich the region far into the future.” Vanguard Charitable is a donor-advised fund, which is a way for taxpayers of any means to group charitable contributions into a single year to reap tax benefits, and then to distribute the funds to their favorite charities over time.

» READ MORE: Donor-advised funds offer a charitable way to harvest a tax break and are growing in popularity

Oliver Bass, president of Natural Lands, said the grant marks “an important step for conservation in the city as development continues to replace green space.”

Neighbors relieved

Giordano, of the Upper Roxborough Civic Association, said he was pleased the entire tract would be preserved. It’s his hope neighborhood groups will help take care of the property through cleanups and removal of invasive plants. Giordano, also involved with the Upper Roxborough Civic Association, said the scout tract and reservoir have a “natural linkage” that will now be preserved.

“It’s a great day for the community and a great day for the nature center,” said Jamie Wyper, president of Residents of Shawmont Valley.

Wyper said the forest has old growth trees, as well as wildlife such as foxes, owls and deer. He also believes the community will be able to find volunteers to coordinate with the center in maintaining the property.

“This is just an extraordinary piece of land,” Wyper said.