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Battle lines at Valley Forge

Residents of Lower Providence Township who live next to Valley Forge are feeling like George Washington at the Battle of the Brandywine - completely outflanked.

The complex, to be built on 78 privately owned acres with the bounds of Valley Forge National Historical Park, has been compared to the Williamsburg Inn resort in Colonial Williamsburg.
The complex, to be built on 78 privately owned acres with the bounds of Valley Forge National Historical Park, has been compared to the Williamsburg Inn resort in Colonial Williamsburg.Read more

Residents of Lower Providence Township who live next to Valley Forge are feeling like George Washington at the Battle of the Brandywine - completely outflanked.

"It's disturbing how secretive this has been," said Craig Crawford, whose home is next door to the park. "Why wasn't this in a township newsletter? The public is not aware of what's going on, and it seems like it's a done deal."

This anger, verging on rage, is directed at what many neighbors regard as dramatically expanded plans for the proposed American Revolution Center. The privately owned Revolutionary War museum would be the first in the nation to tell the entire history of the war, complete with an extensive collection of artifacts, documents, and other material.

Under the new plan, the complex, to be built on 78 privately owned acres within the official boundaries of Valley Forge National Historical Park, would include a 131,000-square-foot museum, a three-story hotel, a tavern and restaurant, a conference center, a dormitory for visiting scholars, a small campground, and other amenities.

"This is Valley Forge, for crying out loud," said Don Naimoli, a former officer of Girard Trust Bank and a longtime park volunteer. "What went on over there is still a national symbol, and we need to protect that heritage."

Center officials argue that much of the concern is unwarranted because it is based on misunderstandings and erroneous information. No harm is intended, they say.

"We have written an ordinance that allows a museum and the important things that go along with a museum," said Neil Sklaroff, the attorney for the project. "This is not commercialization."

Crawford and Naimoli are among many - including the National Park Service, the Sierra Club, and the National Parks Conservation Association - who disagree.

And their protests are having an impact: This museum is no longer on the fast track, as many had feared.

"It's a good story, and it needs to be told," Lower Providence Township Manager Joe Dunbar said of the center's mission, "but it needs to be done right. It can't be rushed."

Township officials are now reconsidering their next steps.

Supervisors had considered a possible vote on the plans Thursday. That has now been delayed. Instead, the evening will be devoted to a public presentation of the project, complete with scale models.

"We should have done a much better job in getting information out to our residents," Dunbar said. "Hindsight being 20/20, maybe we should have done the public presentation first and solicited more input."

The controversial zoning ordinance that the museum needs to proceed is getting tweaked as well. That ordinance, rejected by township planners last month, triggered the initial protests.

Among the concerns were the commercial uses the ordinance would allow, the scale of the proposed development, and the lack of restrictions on paving over land that could yield unknown archaeological treasures.

Park Service officials and planners say that promises are one thing, but that an ordinance would be law. And they worry that the center's proposed ordinance is so loosely worded it would permit:

No limits on the size of the hotel or conference center.

Millions of square feet of commercial space, including a stadium, a shopping center, a 130-foot-high observation platform, and cabins for camping.

Paving over 70 percent of the site for buildings, parking lots, sidewalks, plazas, courtyards and recreational amenities.

"As currently written, the proposed ordinance opens the door to extensive development of the site," park superintendent Mike Caldwell wrote in a letter to township officials.

Center officials pledge that no more than 15 percent of the site would be paved over, and that at least 75 percent would be kept as permanent open space, though there are no plans for a conservation easement to guarantee those promises, said Thomas M. Daly, president and chief executive officer of the American Revolution Center.

Dunbar said the revised ordinance would incorporate those limits.

"Rather than leaving it to judges to interpret things, we are going to tighten it up as best we can using the English language," Dunbar said.

Revisions will also call for the museum to be built first. If it is not, the entire ordinance is void, he said.

The commercial aspects worry the Montgomery County Planning Commission as well.

"We are definitely in support of the proposed museum," county planner Jean Holland said, but "the intensity and some of the other uses seem significantly out of line with their stated needs." She said the developer needed to respect the location.

Daly said museum visitors would want to stay overnight to enhance their experience. He compared the proposed center to the Williamsburg Inn, a resort in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg, Va., that hosts heads of state as well as tourists and scholars. Daly foresees similar uses for the Valley Forge museum complex.

"We believe this will be one of the foremost centers for study of the Revolutionary era," he said. "We are an aggressive marketing organization, and we will be branding the American Revolution."

Project costs are pegged at $150 million, including a $40 million endowment. To date, the state has pledged $20 million and Montgomery County $2.5 million toward construction.

Township supervisors have been bombarded with phone calls from residents, Dunbar said, and more than 200 postcards protesting the plans have arrived at the township building.

The center would be built on a privately owned tract within park boundaries that historians say was crucial to the success of the winter encampment of 1777-78. ARC has an agreement with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to buy the site.

Park historians say this site, known as the Perkiomen Peninsula, provided strategic protection for troops camped on the other side of the river. Under Washington's orders, a bridge was built to connect the two sides. It was the only bridge built by Continental troops during the eight-year war.

The peninsula was also the site of the newly organized commissary, which ensured a smooth delivery of food and supplies to the army during the rest of the war, according to historians.

The museum's original plans had called for it to be built near the park's Welcome Center, but ARC officials decided that government restrictions would hamper their fund-raising and construction efforts.

Critics argue that the best move the ARC could make would be to work out its differences with the National Park Service and bring the museum back to the park.

"What are we going to have when this is done? Two dueling parks on opposite sides of the river?" Naimoli asked. "That doesn't serve the public."