After more than a year of debate, Westtown Township supervisors voted Thursday night to deny Toll Bros. its application to build a 317-unit housing development on Crebilly Farm, a 322-acre Chester County parcel that many have argued has ties to the Revolutionary War.
The decision, which the township's three supervisors unanimously supported, was made in front of a standing-room-only crowd, which clapped, jumped, and cheered when the ruling was announced. The supervisors — two registered Republicans and one registered Democrat, according to voter registration records — offered no explanation of their vote, saying only that a written decision would be issued in coming weeks.
On Friday morning, a spokeswoman for Toll declined to comment. She did not indicate how the Horsham-based builder would proceed or whether an appeal was possible.
The Westtown decision caps a contentious year — at least publicly — for Toll, one of the nation's largest builders. Just 35 miles away in Center City Philadelphia, Toll for more than a year has pursued plans to build a high-rise along Jewelers' Row, a proposal that has received sizable criticism. At the same time, the publicly traded builder has had a strong year in the stock market, where its price is up more than 54 percent compared with a year ago, as homebuilder confidence has risen to its highest level in almost two decades.
Toll also has continued to build across the region and the nation. Toll's average home price in the fourth quarter of 2017 was $836,600, according to its corporate profile.
In the company's initial plans for Crebilly Farm, Toll sought to build a combination of single-family homes and townhouses on the parcel, which is zoned for residential development. Toll had entered into an agreement of sale for the land with the Robinson family, which has owned the tract for decades. In different variations of its plans, Toll planned to preserve more than half of the land as open space.
Residents from across Chester County and elsewhere in the suburbs rallied against Toll's project, arguing the entire parcel should be preserved as open space. According to those fighting to preserve it, Crebilly Farm's proximity to the Brandywine Battlefield, and the possibility that Revolutionary troops crossed the farm, was enough of a reason to protect it. Most of the parcel is devoted to farmland, though a few buildings exist on the site.
Toll's plans gained initial support from Westtown's Planning Commission, which recommended approval of the plans — yet with dozens of conditions, many of which stipulated that Toll should improve surrounding traffic and roads. The Planning Commission also said Toll should commission an archaeological study, protect any artifacts discovered, and preserve historic buildings on the property.
The battle between preservationists and the luxury builder highlights the tensions that have emerged in one of the state's fastest growing counties. Chester County's population has surged 19 percent since 2000, with more than 516,000 people recorded in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As a result, public officials have had to grapple with how to accommodate that population growth, while still maintaining open space, a hallmark of the county's history.
The decision "shows how serious Chester County townships are about preserving open space," said Ken Hemphill, communications coordinator for Neighbors for Crebilly, one of the groups that protested the development. "They fight for quality of life."
Toll was not the first developer to try to build on the Crebilly land. Years ago, town officials approved the construction of a retirement community on a smaller piece of the land, according to the planning commission, but that proposal was derailed by the Great Recession. There was also a plan for apartments, which was withdrawn after a long period of negotiations with township officials.
In a statement Friday, Elizabeth Moro, who co-founded Neighbors for Crebilly, said the supervisors' decision was "a win for respecting the sanctity of battlefields and the men and women who paid the ultimate price for our freedom."
The Westtown Township supervisors' explanation of their decision is expected on or before Feb. 12.