Friday, May 7, 2021

New Hanover Commits to $600K to Preserve Camp

At 455 acres, the Girl Scout Camp Laughing Waters is the largest undeveloped site in Western Montgomery County.

With a unanimous vote, the New Hanover Township Board of Supervisors Thursday voted to make an offer of $600,000, spread out over 10 years, to help with the preservation of the 455-acre Laughing Waters Girl Scout Camp.

At its April 1 meeting, a coalition of the girl scouts and Natural Lands appeared before the supervisors and asked for a contribution of  $800,000 to help build a match in seeking a pair of state grants. 

The grants being sought -- $250,000 from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and $250,000 from the Department of Community and Economic Development -- would help get to a $3.9 million price tag of putting a conservation easement on the entire camp.

The supervisors balked at the request last month, and said, somewhat pointedly, that they thought it was a lot to ask for when Upper Frederick Township, where 17 percent of the camp is located, was only being asked to contribute $1,200.

Babette Racca, senior advisor for capital assets for the Girls Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania, returned with a counter offer Thursday night -- would the township be willing to commit to $568,965, in payments spread out over three years?

Camp Laughing Waters is shown in this map in light purple. New Hanover Township is home to 83 percent of the property and Upper Frederick to 17 percent.

She said that figure was arrived at by applying New Hanover's share of the parcel, 83 percent, to the funding being sought.

Racca also said Upper Frederick has been asked to contribute about $116,000, closer to its proportion of the camp. That township's supervisors have not yet committed to that amount, "but they didn't laugh us out of the room and they invited us to come back," Racca said.

But New Hanover had a counter offer, one that was more than the request, but paid out over a longer period.

Responding to a suggestion by board member Charles D. Garner Jr., the board vote committed to contributing $600,000 if the payments could be spread out over 10 years.

Camp Laughing Waters has a sizeable pool.
"You're asking for one quarter to one-third of  our open space funding in the next three years," which would constrain the township's efforts to preserve other parcels, Garner said.

Unlike Upper Frederick, New Hanover has a dedicated voter-approved earned income tax for open space preservation, meaning it is constantly replenished. "It's not like we're going anywhere," he said.

"If it's not a cash flow issue for you, I don't see why you couldn't work with getting $60,000 a year for the next 10 years," Garner said. 

Supervisors Chairman Kurt Zebrowski said he was willing to do what it takes to protect the property from developers, even pay over three years, but he liked Garner's idea too.

"I think it's worth doing. I thing we should go for it," Zebrowski said. "It shows the other stakeholders someone else is in the game."

New Hanover's own Open Space Plan has identified the camp as a priority for preservation Racca noted.

The township's purchase of a conservation easement  
at Hickory Creek golf course cost $12,000 per acre.
She also pointed to the township's two most recent open space purchases -- $700,000 in 2019 to preserve 22 acres of the Suloman Dairy Farm and another $571,000 in December to preserve nearly 50 acres of the Hickory Valley Golf Course.

Racca said those purchase of the dairy farm's development rights cost the township $21,000 per acre. The golf course preservation cost $12,000 per acre. The $568,000 contribution by New Hanover would be a cost of only $1,200 per acre.

Getting a sizeable contribution from the township is likely a "make-or-break" element for securing at least one of the state grants, Racca said.

The New Hanover motion also indicates the township's contribution will diminish proportionally to how much state money is secured.

In addition to the township's commitment, the conservation effort leans heavily on $2.7 million from Montgomery County. "This is currently Montgomery County's largest open space project," said Racca.

A conservation easement would leave the property under Girl Scout ownership, but the organization would forfeit all development rights. The enforcement of that easement would be held by Natural Lands, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving open space.

Swamp Creek runs through the Girl Scout camp.
Under the current zoning, the parcel could become home to as 200 more residential units in New Hanover, which Township Manager Jamie Gwynn had noted is the third fastest growing municipality in Pennsylvania, according to preliminary Census figures.

If the parcel were sold off for that purpose, it would net the Girl Scouts more than $10 million, Racca said. It would also result in, among other impacts, a 106 percent increase in run-off into Swamp Creek, which runs through the property, said Kate Raman from Natural Lands.

Earlier in the meeting, Supervisor Ross Snook had given the board a close-up view of the impact the township's dozens of residential construction projects are having on the region's streams, not to mention stormwater issues and a steady stream of increased flooding complaints from residents.

The dotted line on this map, part of Racca's presentation, shows Montgomery County's plans for a trail and greenway along Swamp Creek that would connect with the Perkiomen Trail and make its way through Camp Laughing Waters for two miles, shown in red at the left of the map.

Although the Scouts would retain ownership, public access would be granted at two locations and two miles of a six-mile trail that would connect to Montgomery County's planned Swamp Creek greenway.

The New Hanover vote was timely in that the deadline for the second state grant application is May 30.

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