Park Service negotiating to keep developer from building in Valley Forge

Proposal to put 62 luxury houses inside park caused uproar

January 20, 2002|By Diane Mastrull | Diane Mastrull,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

The National Park Service and Toll Bros. are on the brink of a deal that would put an end to the developer's hotly protested plan for a subdivision of 62 luxury homes inside Valley Forge National Historical Park.

The largest builder of high-end housing in the United States. Toll intended to turn a privately owned tract on the north side into Valley Forge Overlook - the first such development within the boundaries of any national historical park.

Impelled by the public outrage that has erupted across the country, the park service now is negotiating to buy the land, reportedly valued at about $10 million, in order to spare it.

"I'm optimistic this is going to work because of the commitment of all parties involved to make it work," said U.S. Rep. Joseph Hoeffel, a Pennsylvania Democrat who is acting as intermediary in talks between Toll and the park service. His district includes the 3,466-acre park.

`A priority'

Through a spokeswoman, the Huntingdon Valley-based builder declined to comment on the pending deal. A park service official, however, said that acquiring the 62-acre site has become "a priority" for the agency.

"We're trying to protect this island of green in the midst of suburbia," said communications chief David Barna.

Ever since a news report on Dec. 16 detailed the Toll plan, a firestorm of protest has swept the ranks of preservationists, historians and Revolutionary War re-enactors nationwide. The National Park Service has heard, as well, from tourists, joggers, birders, grade-school students - all incensed by the idea of a modern subdivision on what they consider hallowed ground.

`Outpouring of alarm'

"There has been an outpouring of alarm and a [determination] to help see that the subdivision does not go forward," said Robin Mann of the Sierra Club, the rally's organizer.

"There's a collective sense of how can this happen - that land within a national park can be developed?"

Many historical parks, in fact, contain private lands that are vulnerable to development. Valley Forge has five such tracts totaling 500 acres - the result of Congress' failure to appropriate enough funds to buy all the land within the borders it drew in the 1980 park expansion.

Toll has an agreement of sale on one of the parcels, the Schwoebel family tree nursery, in the park's northern reaches. Far less is known about this sector than the more historically celebrated area to the south, site of the Continental Army encampment in the winter of 1777-1778. Preliminary archaeological surveys next to the Schwoebel property, however, have uncovered evidence of a troop commissary, as well as Native American settlements.

Some park supporters have called on the developer to donate the land - a move that chief executive Robert Toll does not seem willing to make, according to Hoeffel. The lawmaker said, however, that Toll would not try to recover the money his firm spent pursuing local officials' approval of Valley Forge Overlook for the last two years.

Toll stated he wanted the land's "fair market value," Hoeffel said, "but he wasn't looking for lost profits."

Although he has no details on how the deal would be funded, Hoeffel said park service director Fran Mainella told him the money is available in the Interior Department's budget. Freeing it up for parkland acquisition would involve a congressional appropriations process taking 60 to 90 days.

Mainella, he said, "was confident that could go forward."

Supervisors in Lower Providence Township were to decide in a meeting last week whether Toll could proceed with Valley Forge Overlook. But at the developer's request, the vote has been pushed back to Feb. 7. Township manager Dan Olpere said he hopes a settlement between Toll and the park service will occur in the meantime.

The supervisors themselves have come under increasing pressure to put the kibosh on the development.

Last week, the 20 third-graders in Lisa Czapracki's class at Schuylkill Elementary School each wrote letters to the officials. The children had gone to nearby Valley Forge on a field trip, and felt passionately that Toll should not share the park with the spirit of Gen. Washington.

Building houses in the park, wrote Sam Knaub, 9, "would be disrespect to our country because that's where George Washington and his men stayed ... while they were fighting the English for our freedom."

"If there were houses there, the beautiful open land with great sounds would be all gone," wrote Laura Fabius, 9, who thought up the letter campaign. "Instead, there would be loud, maybe horrible sounds... Very treasured artifacts, like guns, could be chopped up and never seen again."

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