Plan to sell off former scout camp for development in Roxborough rattles neighbors
Community questions centered on why an environmental center would sell land rather than keep it whole.
A rare, large wooded tract could soon become available for sale in densely populated Philadelphia.
And some neighbors in the Upper Roxborough and Shawmont Valley civic associations aren’t happy about it, fearing development could come to an area of the city marked more by a rural vibe than an urban one.
The plan by the nonprofit Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education to sell 24 acres of a former Boy Scout camp in Northwest Philly drew an often contentious virtual crowd of 100 people from the two civic groups to a Zoom community meeting on the issue Thursday evening.
The center’s executive director, Mike Weilbacher, and three members of its board of trustees tried to alleviate those fears. Weilbacher told the crowd that the center plans to limit development of the tract while ensuring parts of it remain preserved.
The land is zoned for single and multifamily homes, passive recreation, adult and child care, community centers, and community gardens or farms.
The questions — often pointed — centered on why an environmental center would sell land rather than keep it whole, how development would affect a “Toad Detour” designed to protect the amphibians, whether members of the board had conflicts of interest, if development would bring city water and sewer to the area, if building density would be kept low, how storm water would be handled — and a host of other issues.
Why does the center want to sell the land?
The center, which offers programs in environmental education, art, and land stewardship, as well as summer camps, owns 340 acres protected through a conservation easement with Natural Lands between the Schuylkill and Wissahickon Valley Park. It is the largest privately owned open space in the city.
It also has owned the unprotected smaller scout parcel for more than 40 years. Weilbacher told the online participants that the center, which is funded from grants, contributions, and program revenue, doesn’t have the financial ability to maintain that land and needs at least $5 million to make much-needed upgrades and repairs at the center’s buildings. Selling the land would help pay for that.
“We have suffered from years of underfunding,” Weilbacher said, “and we’ve been working hard to improve that situation. But we have a really tired main building from 1968 that needs some TLC, and a wildlife clinic that hasn’t been touched for 30 years. We have trails and land to maintain. We have staff. The nature museum is tired.”
The center has twice applied for state funding to preserve the scout parcel, originally donated to the center by a family. But the center was turned down because it was told by the state that it “wasn’t cost-effective.” The center previously sold 10 acres of the scout land to a church to raise money in the 1980s.
“We’re unable to use it programmatically. It’s too remote for us,” Weilbacher said in an interview before the meeting. “So it’s been essentially 40 years that we’ve never had the capacity to maintain it in any significant way. I think there was some idea 20 years ago to use it for camping, but that plan was never activated.”
Weilbacher said a developer expressed interest a year and a half ago in the scout property at Port Royal Avenue and Eva Street, and which is bordered by the Roxborough and Shawmont Valley neighborhoods. The developer wanted to build two homes and house horses, but the board didn’t want to proceed without protections in place for the property, Weilbacher said.
What kind of development might take place?
The board is looking for a buyer who would agree to a conservation easement on the land, limiting its use and conserving steep slopes. The buyer would also have to agree to stricter storm-water measures than required by the city. The board said it will post a request for proposals (RFP) when it’s finished.
Port Royal Avenue does not have city sewer or water, Weilbacher said, and the goal is to try to keep those “19th-century characteristics.”
“That’s not what the city is requiring,” Weilbacher said, “but that’s what we’re requiring. So we’re going far and above.”
Green Tree Run flows through the property, and the center hopes to protect it. The scout property is also adjacent to the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve.
“The board is full of people with a passion for conservation and the environment,” Weilbacher said. “We’re trying to do the right thing for the neighborhood, for the land, and for us.”
He said any sale has to clear an internal task force and receive approval by two-thirds of trustees.
“Truthfully, a large number of homes could be built there,” he said, “but we’re not interested in that.”
Restrictions on the property
Neither Weilbacher nor the board would specify the limits on development until the RFP is ready to be made public, though they did say that any buyer would have to agree to a conservation easement that would, among other things, protect two ravines totaling 12 acres, or half the property.
Board member John Carpenter told the crowd that the center won’t accept development proposals that seek variances from the zoning, that the proposals may not include installing water and sewer lines along Royal Avenue, and would have to run such lines off Eva Street if they do.
Carpenter said the board recognizes the surrounding area is composed of single-family homes “with lots of large trees and forested areas, and we are expecting any developer that comes to us to respect that and to produce a design that is thoughtful and sensitive to that environment.”
He said any developer would be asked to “bring a higher level of storm-water management” than is required and would have to offer “some form of protection” for the toad migrations across Port Royal Avenue. Plans would have to be shared with the public.
“We are not under a gun to sell this property to the highest bidder,” Carpenter said. “We are trying to make a reasonable choice about how we manage this asset and how we invest in our programs. And if any proposals that come to us do not meet both our needs as a conservation organization, and our fiduciary needs as a financial manager, we may choose to do nothing and simply file this way as a challenging effort.”
Carpenter said the board would welcome proposals by conservation organizations.
Some people asked about the possible involvement of the Stamm Development Group in Philadelphia, where Schuylkill Center board member Christopher McGill is executive vice president. McGill told the group that the company would not be looking at the property.
Some attendees were angry that the meeting was virtual. Rich Giordano, president of the Upper Roxborough Civic Association, suggested the possibility of an in-person meeting, but nothing has been scheduled with the Schuylkill Center’s board.
Board member Joanne Dahme said the center has set up an email for those with concerns, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“If we don’t find a proposal that meets all of our stringent requirements,” Dahme said, “we certainly would not be moving forward with that.”