West Bradford Township officials voted Tuesday night to approve a proposed settlement agreement with a local real estate developer, ending a six-year squabble over the future of the abandoned Embreeville State School and Hospital.
The Chester County municipality’s Board of Supervisors voted 3-0 in favor of approving the deal, which will give the township ownership of roughly 200 acres, including where the 16-building former psychiatric hospital sits. The township will pay Embreeville Redevelopment LP, the developer who owns the land, $22.5 million — a price Township Manager Justin Yaich said reflects both the value of the land plus the 1,100 homes that the development team hoped to build.
Yet before the township begins paying the settlement, Embreeville Redevelopment must first demolish the sprawling hospital facility and remediate all associated asbestos, mold, and soil contamination — a job that Kenneth Hellings, one member of the three-person Embreeville Redevelopment team, expects will cost around $13.5 million. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection will certify that all remediation is correctly completed.
West Bradford intends to keep the land as open space, including both untouched fields as well as “active” recreation.
The finalized settlement agreement marks the end of a long and contentious fight over the fate of Embreeville, which sat abandoned and deteriorating since it was closed in the late 1990s after a U.S. Department of Justice settlement. The facility once operated as a psychiatric hospital, and later became a smaller state-run institution for intellectually and developmentally disabled patients. There, allegations of abuse emerged, including stories of assault and medication abuse.
Around the time that Embreeville was closing, West Bradford officials began exploring what to do with the land, and entertained the idea of purchasing it for slightly less than $1 million. Ultimately, however, the township backed out, citing a declining real estate market, high cleanup costs, and an unfair taxpayer burden.
The agreement that was approved Tuesday drew mixed reaction from residents of West Bradford, a once rural municipality that has steadily seen population increases. Many commended the township’s commitment to keeping the land as open space. Others questioned why the development team was being paid $22.5 million only six years after it purchased the land for slightly more than $1 million.
Yaich said Wednesday that demolishing the facility would have been “a gamble” for the township, one that officials “weren’t willing to take" when they contemplated purchasing the site years ago.
“They could have theoretically bankrupted themselves if they had gotten [into the buildings] and found stuff that they didn’t account for,” Yaich said.
The settlement price will be partially paid for by a new property tax imposed on West Bradford residents by the township, which would generate enough money to float a bond to cover the purchase. Residents currently do not pay property taxes to the municipality but do pay them to the county and the Downingtown Area School District.
Yaich said Wednesday that the new tax would be set at half of 1 mill — a 50% reduction from the 1 mill that he estimated last week. (One mill is equal to 1/1,000 of a dollar. So, for example, a half-mill tax rate on a median-priced home in the 19320 zip code — roughly $220,000, according to Zillow — would be $110 annually. The 19320 zip code includes parts of Embreeville.)
About half of the $22.5 million purchase price would be paid for by a township open space fund. Yaich added that officials are also “beating the drum for county money, state money, anyone else who will listen to us.”
All pending lawsuits will be dropped, according to the agreement. Both parties had been tied up in litigation after township officials quashed the development team’s zoning challenge.
The deal also states that Embreeville Redevelopment will be allowed to build 33 single-family homes on an adjacent 20 acres that are currently owned by the Brandywine Valley SPCA. That swath has always been included in the developer’s plans, and documents indicate that Embreeville Redevelopment has the site under agreement.
Conrad Muhly, who sits on the SPCA’s board of directors and is CEO of the environmental remediation company Terra Technical Services, is one member of the Embreeville Redevelopment team.
Yet the new agreement does not apply to approximately 13 acres that sit across the border in Newlin Township, which Embreeville Redevelopment owns. That site is home to a memorial for Indian Hannah, considered to be one of the last Lenni-Lenape Indians in Chester County.
A call to Newlin about the plan for the 13 acres was not returned. Yaich said it will take approximately 18 months to demolish the Embreeville complex.