With the approval process for its preferred site in Bucks County stalled, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is once again scouring the Philadelphia suburbs for land on which to build a new veterans cemetery.
Pennhurst, a state-owned site in Chester County that was initially rejected because of anticipated high development costs, will also get a second look, according to VA Secretary R. James Nicholson.
Nicholson announced the move in a letter he sent this week to U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.), who has been pressuring the agency for months to take this step.
Getting a hold of the land in Lower Makefield Township, Bucks County, has bogged down in zoning issues and sales negotiations. "Secretary Nicholson's newfound willingness to explore alternatives to the Bucks County site, Pennhurst in particular, is encouraging and long overdue," said Gerlach in a statement.
In March, the state revised its previous proposal for the Pennhurst property, offering to sell the VA 189 acres for $7.25 million and promising to take on demolition costs for buildings left on the site. The previous offer was 275 acres for $5 million, with the VA paying for demolition.
William F. Tuerk, the VA's deputy undersecretary for memorial affairs, said yesterday that the search for ground has already started.
"For all we know a big parcel of land that was not available might become available," he said. "Things could have changed."
He also said that the agency has hired an architectural and engineering team to develop a site design that can be quickly adapted once the VA takes title.
Tuerk said he wanted to move quickly once Congress appropriates money for construction, which could happen in next year's budget. The VA is seeking $29 million for the Philadelphia cemetery, which is expected to serve the more than 350,000 veterans who live in Philadelphia and the suburban counties.
Gerlach and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) were the prime sponsors of legislation authorizing the cemetery that President Bush signed on Nov. 11, 2003. That law called for a total of six new cemeteries, and they were expected to be established in four years.
Although none of the cemeteries has opened, the other five are much further along, Tuerk said.
Nicholson announced in January 2006 that he had selected a site in Upper Makefield Township known as the Dolington tract, which was under agreement of sale to Toll Bros. Inc.
(Bruce E. Toll, vice chairman of Toll Bros., is also chairman of Philadelphia Media Holdings L.L.C., the owner of the The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and philly.com.)
In exchange for selling that land to the VA for what the company said was a discounted price of $7 million, Toll said it needed zoning approval on two other properties to build more than 200 houses.
In response, a zoning amendment was adopted last summer by Upper Makefield and two other townships - Newtown and Wrightstown - that are governed by a regional zoning agreement. The amendment, which is contingent on the cemetery proceeding, allows Toll to build 80 houses on land next to Dolington, and 90 on the nearby Melsky tract, which is owned by the Council Rock School District.
Several provisions of the ordinance were challenged by Leo Holt, whose farm straddles Upper Makefield and Newtown Townships. Hearings on that challenge, which started in January, are ongoing and several other landowners have become parties to it. Another session was set for last night.
Holt's attorney, Tracy Paul Hunt said Nicholson's letter might spur officials to action.
"The folks here need to understand the urgency of this if they truly want the cemetery," Hunt said.
No matter what the outcome of the hearings, appeals are likely, said Jim Betylon of Upper Makefield, who is one of the challengers to the zoning ordinance.
"With the mess that has been made, I don't know how anything can be done very quickly at this point," he said.
Tuerk said he still has hopes that the issues swirling around the Dolington tract can still be resolved.