Despite ardent opposition from area residents, Toll Brothers, one of the nation's largest home builders, tried for much of 2017 to gain approval to build 317 homes on a Chester County farm, one that many have argued has ties to the Revolutionary War.
But in December, the luxury home builder's plans for single-family homes and townhouses were quashed, when three Westtown Township supervisors voted unanimously to deny Toll Bros.' proposal.
The reason for their denial? For weeks, no one knew.
Finally, however, the supervisors at the time — two of whom are Republicans and one a Democrat, according to voter registration records — have issued an explanation. In a 53-page document published last month, they laid out why the Horsham-based builder was rejected.
They had concerns over road placement, traffic, stormwater management, and the disruption of "scenic views," according to the document. The possibility of the land's ties to the Battle of Brandywine was a worry, too. The testimony of Toll's witnesses, at times, was not "credible," the supervisors wrote. And Toll's submitted plans did not always reconcile with the zoning code or the changes that officials asked them to make, the supervisors said.
"An applicant for conditional use must demonstrate that his proposed use meets the applicable requirements of the zoning ordinance when the application is submitted," the supervisors wrote. "A promise to comply or conditions compelling future compliance cannot cure an otherwise non-compliant application."
Kira Sterling, chief marketing officer for Toll, declined in an email to comment. It remains unclear whether the company, which operates in 20 states and nearly 50 markets, will appeal the decision. Toll has 30 days from the date of the written decision, which was issued Feb. 12, to do so.
If the company does appeal, Toll faces serious obstacles. The neighbors who vehemently lobbied against the Toll project — organized under the name Neighbors for Crebilly Farm — remain steadfast in favor of preserving the land. Beyond that, many of the Westtown supervisors' concerns with the plan center on problems that would likely remain issues.
For example, the supervisors projected in their decision that Toll's development would generate 2,742 vehicles a weekday, with 210 vehicle trips during morning peak hours and 266 during afternoon peak hours — numbers that could be difficult to diminish without substantially reducing the development's size.
In addition, the supervisors argued, there was likely "action associated with the [Battle of Brandywine] in close proximity" to Crebilly Farm — most notably, they said, "skirmishes between Hessian troops and Continental troops."
"Further information about the role that Crebilly Farm played in the Battle of Brandywine is important to a modern understanding of the importance of the Battle of Brandywine," the supervisors wrote in their decision. "… The 'best way' to develop that information would be an archaeological investigation of Crebilly Farm."
The highly public dispute over the fate of Crebilly Farm was among other recent setbacks for Toll. Just 35 miles away, in Center City Philadelphia, Toll has been under the microscope for its proposed high-rise along Jewelers Row, which has been criticized by current Jewelers Row tenants, architects, and preservationists. The builder is scheduled to have its final Jewelers Row presentation in front of the Philadelphia Civic Design Review on Tuesday.
Yet Toll has not been alone in its struggle to gain project approval — particularly when it comes to building in Philadelphia's suburbs. As open space has dwindled across many of the counties that surround the city, developers have faced more difficulty getting projects approved.
Despite some obstacles to building, Toll has continued to find financial success. In its first-quarter earnings, released Feb. 27, the builder reported revenues of $1.18 billion, up 28 percent from the year before. Similarly, the number of homes sold increased 20 percent. And the company's City Living division — which focuses mostly on building in New York City, but in other areas, too — also saw success. Specifically, Toll closed on 47 City Living contracts, totaling $61.8 million in earnings.
Still, analysts warn, Toll, like other builders, is facing external pressures that could present future challenges. Mortgage rates are expected to rise this year after hovering beneath 4 percent for quite some time — possibly deterring some buyers from entering the market — and building expenses are expected to continue to increase, as labor, land, and supplies are experiencing tighter demand.
In a news release about its first quarter, Toll made no mention of the Crebilly Farm dispute — offering only optimistic comments on the company's year ahead.
"The quality of our homes and our brand were recently recognized by a number of business and industry leaders," said Doug Yearley, Toll CEO. "… These honors reflect the tremendous effort and commitment to excellence of the entire Toll Brothers team, and our focus on providing our home buyers and renters with the highest levels of quality, value and service."