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Daylesford Abbey's plan to sell 42 acres sparks concern in Willistown Township

The abbey says it needs to sell the land to raise badly needed money. Neighbors want to stop development.

For Frank Palopoli and other supporters of the Daylesford Abbey's efforts to sell 42 of its 130 acres for development, it comes down to preserving the mission of the Norbertine priests and brothers who have been at the Willistown Township site for more than 40 years.

Without more funds, they couldn't continue to offer liturgies, retreats and other services to thousands of people a year, said Palopoli, a consultant for the abbey.

For neighbors who oppose the sale, it comes down to preserving open space in the northern, more developed end of Willistown.

"This whole thing is such a big mistake," said Sharon Bennett, who believes building 55 houses on the land the Abbey wants to sell to a developer would increase traffic and decrease the value of the overall community.

The abbey has offered $1.25 million to the township to make up for the loss of open space.

Although the church land is private property, the abbey's current development plan would require a zoning change and a conditional-use permit. Papolini would not say what developers the abbey has been talking with about the project.

Both sides anticipate that the three township supervisors will make a decision at tomorrow's 8 p.m. Willistown Township meeting at 688 Sugartown Rd., but the chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Norman MacQueen, couldn't guarantee that the issue would come to a vote then.

"Nothing's off the table at this point," MacQueen said, when asked if the township would consider turning down the abbey's requests, and instead try to purchase the land itself. "We're looking at the applicant's case. We want to make a good decision, because this affects a lot of folks."

Bennett heard about the potential development a month ago, and although she thinks "it's a done deal," she sent memos to neighbors urging them to attend meetings. Around 80 people packed the latest one.

Because of expenses to care for older community members and recent renovations, Palopoli said, abbey officials need to permit land development, "in order to sustain themselves for the long run. And, you know, 'for the long run' for the abbey is hundreds of years."

Palopoli said he understands why people are upset, but maintains the decision was their best option and one abbey officials reached reluctantly.

"The only thing they really have is their land. So they struggled quite a bit, because the land is important to them," he said.

The 42 acres that would be developed are on the northern-most part of the property, bordering Devon Road.

Under current zoning, one house could be built per acre. The church is requesting the township rezone all 130 acres and grant a conditional-use permit for 42 acres, allowing a developer to build 55 homes on the site.

For opponents, this is too much.

"This is the last piece of open space that's available for recreational use for the hardworking taxpayers in the northern end of this township," said Kelly Tickner, who believes the open space is more valuable than the $1.25 million the abbey is offering Willistown.

"I think the township should work with them and try to find a way to buy the land," Tickner said. "There's always a way."