Friday, April 2, 2021

New Hanover Balks at $800K Girl Scout Camp Ask

Mercury File Photo
Camp Laughing Waters, owned by the Girl Scouts, comprises 455 acres, 375 of which are in New Hanover Township and 127 acres of which are in Upper Frederick Township.

Last year, as officials were putting together a funding package to try to preserve the 455-acre Girl Scout Camp that straddles the New Hanover, Upper Ferederick Township line, New Hanover pledged $50,000 toward the effort.

However, the effort failed to attract the $1.2 million in state grants upon which the purchase of a conservation easement to preserve Camp Laughing Waters depends.

So this year, those involved are setting their sights a bit lower, and only seeking a $500,000 grant from the state. They would like to make up the difference with a big chunk of New Hanover Township's open space money.

Camp Laughing Waters has a disc golf course.
Thursday night, the supervisors were a bit startled to be asked by Kate Raman from Natural Lands, a non-profit dedicated to preserving open space, to pony up $800,000.

They were even more startled to be asked to make that decision within the next two weeks or so.

To say they were suffering from sticker shock might be an understatement.

"It's a big number going from $50,000 to $800,000 and giving us only a few weeks is almost impossible," said Supervisor Boone Flint.

Noting that he agrees with the goal of preserving the property, Supervisor Charles W. Garner Jr. said "$800,000 is a huge amount to ask for. I think it's a great project, but to come to us on April 1 and say you need an $800,000 commitment in 12 days, that's a lot for me to swallow," says Garner.

He pointed out that in December, the township spent $571,000 from its open space fund to preserve 47.5 acres of the Ambassador course of the Hickory Valley golf course. and it was a lot to ask for quickly when the township may have other priorities for that money. 

New Hanover's elected officials were even more reluctant when they discovered that Upper Frederick has only committed $2,500 toward the effort.

Raman explained that New Hanover's current zoning of the parcel would allow more than 200 homes to be built there, whereas Upper Frederick's large parcel zoning would only allow about 40.

Camp Laughing Waters, shown in pink, is surrounded by other preserved open space, parks and permanently preserved farmland.

But the New Hanover Supervisors were unimpressed with that argument. Garner said by his calculation, Upper Frederick's percentage of preserved acreage should put them on the hook for about $100,000.

Supervisor Marie Livelsberger took another tack. She divided the cost of the project by the prevention of the construction of 240 homes. Using that calculus, New Hanover's share would be closer to $500,000, she said.

Camp Laughing Waters also has a sizeable pool.
But New Hanover is an easier ask because it has an existing open space fund, which comes from an additional .15 mill earned income tax voters approved back in 2006. 

But lately, the township has begun to tap that fund heavily for its own open space preservation efforts.

In addition to the golf course preservation, last year, the supervisors voted to spend $700,000 from the open space fund to preserve 33 acres of the Suloman Dairy Farm on Leidy Road between Swamp Pike and Buchert Road.

The camp is not under imminent threat of being sold, said Babette Racca, senior advisor for capital assets for the Girls Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania. 

"This is a long-term project for us. We want to invest and protect the property," said Racca. 

Last year during efforts to drum up support, she said in recent years, the Girl Scouts have consolidated into one larger council, closed three camps and improved six more. The camps that were closed were sold to the National Park Service, the Chester Water Authority and as a private camp retreat, so none of them will be developed.

New Hanover is considering required efforts to remove
sediment from Swamp Creek, which runs through
the camp property.
In addition to allowing a trail easement to improve public access to Swamp Creek, which runs through the property, the Girl Scouts would  donate $400,000 in land value and another $75,000 in trail value by allowing the increased public access, said Raman.

Montgomery County has pledged $2.7 million toward the roughly $3.9 million worth of development rights for the camp's preservation.

New Hanover, the Route 73 and Swamp Pike corridors have been identified by the county planning commission as areas ripe for development and the township is already juggling multiple projects.

"Driving up here, I was struck by all of the new housing I saw that is being built," Racca said.

Raman said she will be meeting with Upper Frederick officials at their next meeting and would get their sense of a proposal made by Supervisors Chairman Kurt Zebrowski that some way be found of spreading the cost of both township's commitments over several years.

"I'd like to see a little more skin in the game from the neighboring municipality," Zebrowski said.

The supervisors took some other newsworthy actions Thursday which will be the subject of future articles, but you can get a sense of them by clicking here and checking out the Tweets from last night's meeting.

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