You don’t get good things without bold action.
One of Pennsylvania’s most densely populated communities is about to learn this in a very big way. And it’s all because of that newish, oldish adage, “elections have consequences.”
I’m referring to the news bomb that Delaware County Council dropped in the form of an announcement Tuesday. A decade of angst over contested development proposals for 213 acres of mostly privately owned forest in the heart of Delco may instantaneously vanish as a result.
Council initiated action to take over, through extraordinary property condemnation powers, what is the largest tract of undeveloped land in the concrete jungle that is central Delaware County. The Don Guanella tract, as it is known, is a monster of Marple Township greenery and a few old buildings, all hemmed into one of suburban Philadelphia’s most paved-over communities.
Through the powers of eminent domain, the county government that Democrats took total control of during the Trump administration will turn the massive site, long owned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and more recently also the property of a separate investor, into a county-owned park.
This would, if all goes smoothly and the county takes title this summer, stop all efforts to develop the rolling, forested hills wedged between Interstate 476, Cardinal O’Hara High School, a suburban shopping center, and a cemetery. Neighbor opposition has been sizable as proposed developments have come forward.
What a move.
What a gift to the community.
And what good timing.
The coronavirus pandemic made it painfully clear just how hard it is to find an oasis of greenery in this county of about 560,000 people. Towns closer to Philadelphia, such as Marple, have little open space because of furious development for decades after World War II along old trolley lines.
Policymakers are doing what free markets would never do: investing in the common good when the only return on investment is the common good. The Fairmount Park system didn’t just appear like a magic trick in Philadelphia two centuries ago; the city had to assemble it from private land.
Presumably, the county will pay many millions of dollars to wrest this land at fair market value as part of the planned acquisition. It will require a combination of federal, state, and local money, and officials additionally are looking for private dollars and partnerships to help with what would be a negotiated purchase price that has yet to be determined.
The total current assessed value for the land in question is $31.6 million.
This is how you create a legacy of good that endures beyond a single year’s tally of tax receipts or a developer’s annual investment yield off a loan-financed project.
“The desire to preserve, this isn’t really a County Council initiative,” Councilperson Elaine Schaefer said when we spoke by phone after the announcement. “It’s a community initiative that’s been brewing for a decade.”
Marple residents successfully blocked proposals to build houses and other structures there over the past decade. But Republicans in power at the county level took no action to intercede in a way that would have eliminated any future risk of development there.
Democrats won control of council in 2019. Schaefer said they now are unanimously behind the decisive action.
“When Council changed and became a new majority this was on our list of priorities — investing in open space all over our county, Schaefer said. “We committed to make an investment.”
As Inquirer colleague Frank Kummer reported, Delaware County is said by local officials to have the lowest amount of open space preserved among Philadelphia and its suburban counties in Pennsylvania and South Jersey.
While there is an acute housing shortage in Delco and nationwide this year that is thwarting wealth creation hopes for first-time homebuyers, the idea of using this land to help mitigate that would have come at too great a cost.
“It’s just such an important piece of property,” Schaefer said when I pressed her on that crisis-level policy issue. The insufficient supply of houses on the market this year is hurting renters. They must continue padding landlords’ bank accounts instead of pouring their hard-won earnings into what for many Americans is the only appreciating asset they will ever own, a home.
“It is 213 acres of basically a stormwater sponge,” she said. “There are two tributaries to the Darby Creek. The Darby, downstream, has had problematic flooding for many years. All of those communities will benefit, all the way down to Tinicum, from continuing to have this stormwater sponge that exists as the forest is undisturbed.”
Economists believe increasing the supply of housing is key to helping repair the mangled market. They also note how, for decades, suburban governments have thwarted efforts to boost housing supply by refusing to build the kind of denser housing that is affordable to first-time homebuyers.
To that end, I will never forget a story I wrote all the way back in 2003. From the crack of dawn until well after dinner, I accompanied the housekeeping staff of a single hotel in Malvern, Chester County, from home to work and back. They were lower-income Philadelphia residents, piling into a man’s van each morning for a grueling commute into one of the highest-income exurbs in our region. Such was the affordability divide in our society.
Schaefer agreed that the housing shortage is “a real problem.” But for an open-space-starved county such as Delco, which also has some of the region’s most affordable and dense housing, it is too damaging to destroy a natural preserve.
“The problem isn’t solved by paving over our important natural resources and our important natural infrastructure,” she said.
It is hard to argue with a position that also seeks to prevent flooding in less-affluent communities downstream. And all the easier to root for this audacious plan’s success.