Urban sprawl threatens rural Pa. township Sadsbury worries as roads, sewers bring development


SADSBURY TOWNSHIP, Pa. - For three centuries, little Sadsbury Township in western Chester County near Philadelphia has never been far from its past.

Its eight square miles are a quilt of forest and farmland, some of it held by the same families since the early 1700s. Log homes, built when Sadsburyville was an overnight stop for Conestoga wagons trundling to Philadelphia, still stand along the old Lancaster Turnpike. There is only one traffic light, shared with a neighboring township, and not so much as a whiff of fast food.

But these days, Sadsbury Township also is not far from what could be its future. Just a few miles to the east along U.S. 30 sits a monument to suburban sprawl: Exton, land of wall-to-wall malls, traffic jams and cookie-cutter housing tracts.

People in Sadsbury, population 2,700, worry about being "Extonwated." How to stop it, and whether it even can be stopped, is Topic A.

All along the region's outer edges, such fears are as common as macadam. Like many other rural fringe communities, Sadsbury suddenly has become very commutable. With the completion late last year of the Exton Bypass, Center City Philadelphia is only an hour away on an uninterrupted network of freeways.

Development flows in

Once the isolation has been pierced by asphalt - be it the new U.S. 1 Expressway in Bucks County, the Blue Route, an improved Route 422 in Montgomery County, or the new link between Interstate 295 and Interstate 195 in northern Burlington County - development flows in.

The prospect of being paved over and built up willy-nilly has sent officials of such bucolic townships as Upper and Lower Makefield in Bucks County, Salford and Franconia in Montgomery County, New London and Oxford in Chester County and, of course, Sadsbury scratching for solutions. But few of them have experience in complex land-use issues or the money to hire someone who does.

That is why Chester County has stepped forward with an unprecedented offer of help. Under a new land-use program called Landscapes, approved by the county commissioners last month, local governments will be given planning grants of up to $70,000 each and technical assistance.

The goal is to channel development into areas that county planners believe can accommodate it with existing roads and water and sewer lines. The open spaces that give Chester County its postcard prettiness would be preserved.

Although other counties have come up with plans setting out a development vision, Chester's proposes to get down in the trenches with local governments to make it succeed, providing even model zoning ordinances.

Under Pennsylvania law, a county may only counsel its townships on land use, not force them into a course of action. But the commissioners are hoping that, with the cash grants as carrots, their advice will be sought and heeded. At stake, says Karen Martynick, Chester County commissioners chairwoman, is nothing less than "our destiny."

Fastest-growing county

Chester is the fastest-growing county in the region. By 2020, its population is expected to surpass 500,000, a 22 percent increase. Far more worrisome, though, than the number of new residents is the amount of land they will consume. Each new housing unit in the county occupies an average six-tenths of an acre, half again as much as in Bucks and Montgomery and twice that in Delaware County.

That growth will not occur evenly throughout Chester County. Planners expect most of it to be concentrated along the U.S. 30 corridor - right through the heart of Sadsbury.

In some respects, Sadsbury already looks a lot like the ideal land-use scheme for Chester County's rural townships, as put forth in Landscapes. Sadsbury has two charming villages with high-density residential development and commercial enterprises. It boasts large, contiguous farming operations, an impressive amount of parkland and open space, a high-quality stream and watershed, a smattering of large-lot, single-family homes, and even an industrial park with two companies.

Such varied land use, which has occurred accidentally, "may be our saving grace," says Jane Heineman, a member of the township Planning Commission.

Still, to keep it that way will require aggressive action, says Peter O. Hausmann, a developer and conservationist who sits on the )) county's Planning Commission. Otherwise, he warns, places such as Sadsbury "are going to get clobbered."

30% growth projected

Under the most conservative projections, Sadsbury's population will grow 30 percent in the next 25 years. But many think the increase will be much greater.

One of the reasons: The township is about to get sewers.

And sewers, like freeways, accelerate growth.

Many folks in Sadsbury fear that the lines will hasten a building frenzy of single-family homes - that long before the township can finish its land-use planning and make the necessary zoning changes, the damage will be done.

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