Tuesday, July 19, 2016

County Council's position on open space

The Battle of Cardinal Crossing came to the Media Courthouse Monday.

Actually, the Battle of Cardinal Crossing is over. It's not going to happen. Cardinal Crossing was what developer Bruce Goodman dubbed the sprawling development of townhouses, retail and office space - including a new Wegmans supermarket - that he envisioned for the 213 acres surrounding the old Don Guanella School on Sproul Road in Marple.

That plan never got approval and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which owns the tract, one of the last big chunks of open space in the densely popular center of the county, pulled out of their agreement with Goodman and is now actively seeking other buyers.

A group of environmental groups went to the courthouse steps yesterday to push their case for a referendum to be placed on the November ballot on whether the county should float a bond issue to acquire the tract, which includes pristine woods that have long been used by residents for hiking.

You can read all about that press conference here.

County Council has said they will consider the notion.

Yesterday they also released a 10-page white paper on the issue.

Since we did not get that into the paper today, I am including the entire text of the paper here.

* OPEN SPACE PLANNING IN DELAWARE COUNTY

A Statement by Delaware County Council on the Implementation of the 2015 Open Space, Recreation and Greenway Plan

One year after the adoption of the Open Space, Recreation and Greenway Plan by Delaware County Council, there exists public discussion about open space planning in our County. After celebrating the County’s acquisition of the 37.5 acre Little Flower parcel as the County’s 16th County Park, some residents have asked Delaware County to consider the acquisition of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s 200+ acre parcel on Sproul Road in Marple Township. Others have suggested that Delaware County consider an Open Space Tax Referendum for the authorization of County Debt in amounts of $100,000,000 to $125,000,000. This statement addresses those issues.

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Open Space Planning in Delaware County:

A Statement by Delaware County Council on the Implementation of the 2015 Open Space, Recreation and Greenway Plan

The narrative that Delaware County has done nothing to preserve open space is a false narrative.

Through the cooperative efforts of Delaware County along with the federal, state, school districts and municipal governments, as well as private conservation efforts, Delaware County has almost 17,000 acres of preserved open space.

The Open Space, Recreation and Greenway Plan is Delaware County’s Roadmap to Open Space Planning and Acquisition

   The open space network in Delaware County consists of almost 17,000 acres of protected land at the federal, state, county and municipal level. It also includes privately protected lands. It is important to consider all of these lands as part of the countywide open space network because they contribute to the character of the community while also providing environmental benefits.

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Successive Councils of the Delaware County government have recognized the value of open space to our community. Numerous studies have indicated that there are significant benefits to protecting open space, as it has the power to attract business, promote tourism, elevate property values, and create a sense of place.

Over the past 20 years, Delaware County Council has organized many efforts to plan for and acquire open space. In 1994, County Council commissioned the Delaware County Open Space Project Leadership Group to address the issues of regreening and open space preservation. That group recommended that the County borrow $100,000,000 for open space preservation. A referendum was placed on the ballot in 1996 and failed in a vote of the County’s electorate by a margin of 3-1.

In 2000, County Council formed the Delaware County Growing Greener Committee to find alternate ways to support the preservation of open space. That committee led ultimately to the Revitalization Program and Open Space Fund. From 2004-2008, the County leveraged $1,700,000 of County funds in cooperation with local governments and conservancies, which resulted in the preservation of 272.5 acres at a total acquisition cost of $29,800,000.

Over the past five years, Delaware County has engaged in several significant open space preservation projects. The County acquired approximately 41 acres in Middletown Township and preserved an additional six acres via a conservation easement. The acquisition of the site, referred to as Mineral Hill, was coordinated by the County in cooperation with and monies from Natural Lands Trust, Middletown Township, and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The acquisition is adjacent to two municipal parks, Memorial Park in Middletown Township and Louis Scott Park in Upper Providence Township. The combined area of these three parks is approximately 123 acres.

Just this past month, Delaware County announced the acquisition of 37.5 acres in Darby Borough and Upper Darby Township, part of the Little Flower Manor parcel that has become the County’s 16th park. Again working with Natural Lands Trust, over $1,200,000 in grants from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources were secured. Delaware County contributed over $300,000 from its Act 13 Marcellus Shale Impact Fees fund to complete the purchase and has committed additional funds to improve our newest park.

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At 84.5 acres, the acquisitions of the Mineral Hill and Little Flower properties represent the largest addition to the County’s park system since the acquisition of Rose Tree Park a half century ago.

Delaware County is currently in various phases of several large trail network projects. Early this fall, construction will be completed on almost three miles of trails along the former Chester Creek Branch Railroad in Middletown Township. Phase 2 of that project would extend the trail a further 1.5 miles into Aston Township. Construction is ready to begin on parts of the Darby Creek Greenway trail on the one mile portion extending from the Swedish Cabin to Delaware County’s Kent Park, along the Darby Creek, in Upper Darby Township.

For the past several years, Delaware County’s Planning Department worked to create the first comprehensive plan for open space in Delaware County since the 1970s. In response to public interest in open space, the County took a proactive approach in planning to identify needs and opportunities, as well as to address the challenges facing the County during the early third of the 21st century. The first major step in this process was the completion of the County’s comprehensive plan, Delaware County 2035, which was adopted in the fall of 2013.

Delaware County 2035, a Comprehensive Policy Framework Plan, establishes an overall vision for the future of the County through the year 2035. It also sets policies for development, redevelopment, conservation, and economic initiatives. The Plan provides the County’s 49 municipalities with a framework for the strategic use of public resources to improve the quality of life for all its residents. In accordance with the Municipalities Planning Code (MPC), the plan “establishes objectives of the municipality concerning its future development, including, but not limited to, the location, character, and timing of future developments.”

The Open Space Component Plan serves as a guide and resource for countywide, multi-municipal, and municipal open space planning efforts. It examines the policies and trends identified in the Delaware County 2035 Land Use Framework Plan with specific regard to open space, recreation, and greenway needs and opportunities specific to the County.

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The Open Space Component Plan was the result of widespread public participation, which included surveys, stakeholder interviews, focus groups, input from a task force, and several public meetings. The public participation efforts conducted, in conjunction with the framework established in Delaware County 2035, informed the goals and objectives established throughout this plan. The document also benefited from the work of design and planning consultants contracted by Delaware County to examine open space needs and opportunities, particularly regarding the County Parks system.

In order to integrate all of the information, analysis, and goals of this plan into a manageable format, the Open Space Plan was organized into four separate volumes:

 Volume I: Open Space and Recreation Plan. Volume I provides a complete review of municipal, county, state, and federal open space within Delaware County. It includes an inventory of existing open spaces and natural resources, analysis of open space and recreational needs and opportunities, and an overview of implementation methods for municipalities and the County to utilize.

 Volume II: Countywide Greenway Plan is Delaware County’s first ever countywide greenway plan. It identifies a countywide Primary Trail Network which connects recreational and cultural hubs via trails, as well as conservation greenways along stream corridors.  Volume III: County Parks and Recreation Volume III specifically examines the Delaware County Parks and Recreation system, and includes long range site development drawings and accompanying narratives for several of the major County parks.

 Volume IV: Public Participation Volume IV is the accumulation of public participation materials from the planning process used for the development of the plan. This includes public presentation documents, public comments, meeting agendas and minutes/comments, stakeholder interview lists, and online survey results.

Since the adoption of the Open Space, Recreation and Greenway Plan by the Delaware County Council in April 2015, the Council, its Planning Department and the Parks and Recreation Department have moved forward with the implementation of the Plan. As noted above, the Little Flower Manor acquisition and the Chester Creek Trail and Darby Creek Greenway projects have represented major acquisitions and projects benefitting the County’s open space, recreation and greenways.

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County Council’s next step in following through on the action items and implementation of the Plan is to convene the Open Space Task Force. The Delaware County Open Space Task Force was first convened to guide the efforts behind the development of the Plan. The recommendation of the Plan is that due to the success of the group, the group should continue to meet to guide and provide support for implementation of the Plan.

Delaware County Council will direct the Task Force to study and make recommendations to Council about open space preservation opportunities; recommended investment strategies and funding for open space; as well as recommended parameters for the County’s participation in open space preservation projects. It is desirable and good planning to have such recommendations in place to act as a guide to enable the most efficient use of any funding in order to best maximize value for open space preservation projects.

Delaware County’s Open Space, Recreation and Greenway Plan makes further recommendations for investment to acquire open space. County Council has adopted this recommendation and will continue its efforts to identify funding to acquire open space. Council believes such funding should come from the proper balance between state and federal, local governments and private conservancy groups. We should continue to work with partners, such as the Natural Lands Trust, to find creative ways to fund and structure open space acquisitions. Projects such as Mineral Hill and Little Flower Manor, as well as the Chester Creek Trail and the Darby Creek Greenway, all involving various funding sources, should be a model.

County Council recognizes that not every open space project can be funded solely with outside funding and have no impact on the County budget. When County funds are invested in open space projects, Council wants to ensure that its funds generate the “biggest bang for our buck”, such as the $1.7 Million Dollar investment made in open space projects from 2004-2008 which leveraged almost $30,000,000 in investment and netted over 230 acres of open space acquisitions.

To this end, County Council would commit to establishing an Open Space Preservation Fund for future open space acquisitions and improvements in an amount up to $20,000,000 that could be diversely funded by not only County dollars but other federal and state grants along with private conservancy dollars. Delaware County can strategically borrow funds for identified open space acquisition projects that are recommended by its County departments and agencies and the Open Space Task Force.

As a geographically small but dense county, Delaware County government maintains its commitment to open space planning and acquisition for the prosperity and health of our citizens now and for the generations to come.

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“Just Float a Bond” – Details of Public Financing For Open Space

Spurred on by outside special interest groups that may have a financial interest in a campaign for and participation in open space debt, some County residents have urged County Council to “just float a bond” to obtain funding for whatever open space may be desired at the moment. The special interest advocates have suggested that Council authorize a voter referendum to approve $100,000,000 to $125,000,000 in debt for open space, to be paid for by the imposition of a special open space tax added to real estate taxes. While County Council understands the desire for some residents of Broomall and its vicinity to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the Sproul Road property owned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia because of the anticipated impacts of any development of that property, incurring $100,000,000 or $125,000,000 of County debt is not a balanced or reasonable solution to that problem and, cannot legally be accomplished in the manner recommended.

Pennsylvania law provides the methods for municipal governments to acquire open space in the Open Space Lands Act, 32 P.S. §5001, et seq. The Open Space Lands Act provides that local government units may adopt an ordinance that would provide for a voter referendum on the question of imposing a specific rate of additional tax (known as an “open space tax”) on either real estate or earned income. The question that must be put on the ballot would be framed, “Do you favor the imposition of a (describe tax in millage or earned income tax rate) by (local government unit) to be used to (purpose)?” However, the Open Space Lands Act specifically precludes counties and county authorities from imposing these local tax options by voter referendum. See, 32 P.S. §5007.1. Therefore, this option is not available to the County of Delaware.

The idea that the County of Delaware would simply borrow $100,000,000 or $125,000,000 under the Local Government Unit Debt Act for future open space acquisition needs is similarly not feasible or legal and, moreover, does not strike the proper balance between the desire to preserve open space and fiscal responsibility to the taxpayers of Delaware County.

Borrowings under the Local Government Unit Debt Act must be for specific capital needs that are identified for the prospective bond purchasers. The funds that are borrowed pursuant to that Act must be used in a set amount of time as identified in the Act and the bond issuance. There is no legal or practical option for simply borrowing $100,000,000 and putting it in an “open space pot” for an unidentified open space purchase at some undetermined time.

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Nor would it make sound financial sense to simply borrow $100,000,000 and start paying interest (even at historic low rates) until such funds were actually needed for open space acquisition.

Borrowing $100,000,000 to $125,000,000 would increase the County’s overall debt by a whopping 31%-40% over the current County debt of approximately $320,000,000. Delaware County Council has well managed the County’s relatively low debt, as reflected in its excellent bond ratings by outside agencies such as Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s. Increasing the County’s debt by almost 40% would negatively affect the County’s bond ratings, making it more expensive to borrow funds not only for actual open space acquisition projects but for other capital needs such as regular upgrades to County facilities such as Fair Acres and the Courthouse and Government Center complex. Those increased borrowing costs would certainly mean increased costs to County taxpayers.

Finally, the real estate tax implications may be the most important factor in any decision to borrow $100,000,000 to $125,000,000. Annual debt service on a borrowing of $100,000,000 would cause an impact of an almost 4% tax increase to every property owner in Delaware County, which would be paid every year for the next 20 years. Annual debt service on a borrowing of $125,000,000 would cause an impact of an almost 5% tax increase to every property owner in Delaware County, which would be paid every year for the next 20 years. While it is certain that many residents most directly affected by any development of the Sproul Road property in Marple Township would prioritize this tax increase and be willing to incur this extra expense, not all would or could afford to shoulder such a tax increase.

At a recent County Council meeting, a school board director from the Interboro School District spoke articulately and passionately against greater tax burdens for the average resident, even knowing that his district would be forced to impose a tax increase for the next year. Local media has well documented the current impacts of school district tax increases. See, Delaware County Daily Times, http://www.delcotimes.com/general-news/20160717/almost-all-delco-school-districts-raising-taxes-for-2016-17. One of the special interest advocates for the pro-debt group described the additional tax burden as, “only the cost of a few beers a year”. This is both an inaccurate statement and one which is not reflective of the appropriate care to be taken and considered when deciding to increase the tax burden of Delaware County residents.

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The Sproul Road Property in Marple Township.

Since the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced its intention to sell the 200+ acre parcel it owns on Sproul Road in Marple Township, there have been grassroots efforts to have some public entity acquire the property to prevent any development. Delaware County Council recognizes the value of preserving this open space in Marple Township and would join in with other local governments and private conservancy groups to identify ways to possibly preserve the property.

According to news reports, until just recently this property was under agreement of sale with a potential developer. The developer was unsuccessful in requests to have Marple Township alter its zoning laws to allow for denser development and different uses than its zoning ordinance allows. The plans for zoning change came before the Delaware County Planning Commission for review and recommendation. These plans were returned to Marple Township with the recommendation to disapprove the developer’s proposed zoning changes. This process shows the importance of proper zoning and land development planning for the preservation of open space.

Following news reports of the announcement of the termination of the agreement of sale with the developer, Delaware County Council contacted the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and requested a meeting to discuss the future plans for this property. The Archdiocese has agreed to meet with us and we anticipate that meeting occurring in the near future. To be clear though, in our communication with the Archdiocese thus far, County Council believes it is the intention of the Archdiocese to maximize its financial position with respect to the sale of the parcel.

According to news reports, the sales price of the parcel may have been as much as $47,000,000. The Archdiocese has indicated that it will (or has) placed this property back on the sales market and will seek the most advantageous sales price it can achieve. It is simply not possible that Delaware County alone will become a bidder against very well financed commercial developers for the acquisition of this property.

The acquisition for open space of very large and desirous parcels of land necessitates the involvement of many partners. For instance, in 2015 a 550-acre parcel in Monroe County was acquired with the involvement of the National Park Service, The Trust For Public Land, The Conservation Fund, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Open Space Planning in Delaware County

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 9 Resources, the William Penn Foundation, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Open Space Institute. There, a property in Shawnee, Pennsylvania was acquired to be added to the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area at a purchase price of $4,330,000. Any plan to explore the acquisition of all or part of the Sproul Road property would take similar creativity and planning efforts. In conclusion, Delaware County will continue to implement its roadmap for the planning and preservation of open space in our County through the use of the Open Space, Recreation and Greenway Plan. The Open Space Preservation Fund will be a valuable new tool to allow the County to seize on open space opportunities. The County will work with the current and any future owners of the Sproul Road property, along with other strategic partners, to identify any way to help preserve that property.

1 Comments:

Blogger Humanitarianism First said...

Looking at this from an investment point of view, you could include Springfield Township and Marple Township in an agreement to pay 1M over a 99 yr. period to keep this land protected. Est. donations from both to include locals and local businesses and contributions from any corporate businesses leasing or renting in either township with a promise to include their name in any events the park may schedule. Just a thought.. You have our support. Good luck !!

July 24, 2016 at 3:29 PM 

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