Land does not come cheap in wealthy Chester County — and Revolutionary-era farmland fiercely defended by neighbors is no exception.
This week, the Westtown Township Board of Supervisors agreed to buy 208 acres of the much fought-over Crebilly Farm for $20.8 million and turn the landmark into a park.
But the township still needs money and voter approval to seal a complex deal that amounts to nearly $100,000 an acre. The board of supervisors and others involved hope that grants from the federal, state and county governments, plus fund-raising, will pay much of the bill, leaving local taxpayers mostly off the hook.
Scott Yaw, chair of the township’s board of supervisors, said during Monday’s vote that he expects a referendum on the purchase to be on November’s ballot.
“This literally is just one of the very first steps in what we envision to be a 12- to 18-month process,” Yaw said.
Separately, Natural Lands, a nonprofit trust, is negotiating to buy conservation easements on 104 more acres of the farm, and expects to reach an agreement as soon as next week.
Together, the township’s purchase and Natural Lands easements would stop development of 312 acres of the farm that had last been listed for sale at $34 million by Kurfiss Sotheby’s International Realty.
A small piece of American history
The land is held by Crebilly Farm Family Associates, which is controlled by the Robinson family, scions of a co-founder of Acme Markets. It is bordered by Routes 202 (Wilmington Pike) and 926 (Street Road), West Pleasant Grove Road, and South New Street — a location that claims a small piece of a very big battle in American history.
On Sept. 11, 1777, Continental Army Gen. Adam Stephen saw Hessian troops marching across what’s now Crebilly Farm from his lookout atop Sandy Hollow, where the main fight of the Battle of Brandywine took place, according to Natural Lands. Stephen sent soldiers to skirmish with the Hessians in a fruitless effort to stop their advance. The British went on to win the biggest single-day battle of the American Revolution, and also went on to capture Philadelphia.
Yet more recent skirmishes have taken place over the same land. Five years ago, local residents formed Neighbors for Crebilly Farm to fight off Toll Brothers, which proposed building 317 homes on the farm. The Toll application took twists and turns over the years, eventually ending up in court.
However, an agreement of sale that Toll had on the property expired last summer, giving the board of supervisors an opportunity to jump in during the fall to halt the application, saying the giant home builder no longer had legal standing as an owner.
“For decades, developers have been salivating over Crebilly Farm,” said Kirsten Werner, a spokeswoman for Natural Lands, which helped the township assemble its deal.
Werner said the Robinson family reached out to Natural Lands and that started the process.
The township hired Natural Lands in December for $3,000 to help it acquire the property and apply for grants. Natural Lands hopes to find about $25.5 million in grants to fund the purchases of the land and easements.
“We are hopeful that we’ll be able to secure funding from a variety of federal, state, county, and municipal sources over the next couple of years,” Oliver Bass, president of Natural Lands, said in a statement. “However, it is likely that there will be a gap between available funds and the amount we need to raise. While a campaign is not yet underway, we anticipate that there will be an important role for the community — which has been so outspoken in its support of Crebilly’s preservation — to play in making up that gap.”
Natural Lands set up a link for updates on the project at www.natlands.org/crebillyfarm.
What will become of Crebilly Farm?
If the deal is successful, the township plans to open its 208-acre portion of the land to the public for hiking, dog walking, and other forms of “passive recreation.” Officials do not plan to develop ball fields or similar recreational uses.
The portion under the Natural Lands’ conservation easement would remain private with the stipulation that four lots of roughly 25 acres each cannot be subdivided or hold more than one home each. Natural Lands expects to pay the Robinsons about $4.5 million for the easements. In return, the Robinsons can sell the lots, but the protective restrictions would carry over to new owners.
The main farmhouse, with its stone entrance gate, pond, and surrounding picket fence, would be on one of those protected lots, said Jack Stefferud, senior director of land protection at Natural Lands. Other existing structures include a large barn, horse stables, chapel, a home and walled outdoor garden.
Stefferud is guiding the township and David Robinson, the farm’s owner, through the process. Stefferud said the farm is currently being leased for row crops, such as corn, soybeans and wheat. A six-acre lot used by Robinson’s son will remain in the family’s hands.
However, most of the family no longer lives in the area. The Robinsons are descendants of Samuel Robinson, who opened a neighborhood grocery store in South Philly in 1917 at Second and Fernon Streets with his friend Robert Crawford. Robinson and Crawford merged with other local grocers to form what eventually became Acme Markets, which was purchased by Albertsons in 1999.
Chester County land records show that James K. Robinson Jr. first submitted a 259-acre subdivision plan titled “Crebilly Farms” in November 1984.
Tom Foser, vice chair of the board of supervisors, said in a statement that Crebilly is a “centerpiece,” helping define Westtown’s rural character.
“The next step in acquiring this beautiful property is probably the most important: financing the project,” Foser said. “It is up to Westtown residents to make this deal happen.”
The board of supervisors expects to approve an ordinance in July to create the referendum, but has not yet said whether it would seek to allow the board to establish a tax to purchase open space, float bonds, or another option.
Jon Altshul, the township manager, said he knows “it’s a big ask” for the state and county to help pay for the purchase.
“That’s not lost on any of us,” Altshul said.
Ken Hemphill, who is aligned with Neighbors for Crebilly Farm, is cautious.
“This piece of the Battle of Brandywine is a long way from being permanently preserved,” Hemphill said, noting the need for grants, and the referendum. “... Considering Westtown’s poor record on open space protection, the supervisors have a chance to make amends by convincing Westtown residents to save Crebilly Farm.”