A bid by the National Park Service, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, and the National Parks Conservation Association to halt development of a privately run museum and conference center at Valley Forge National Historical Park has been denied by zoning officials in Pennsylvania.
Once upon a time those behind the American Revolution Center were working with park officials to develop the museum. But a falling out led the group to go out on its own, purchase 78 acres surrounded on three sides by Valley Forge, and push forward with its development proposal. Known to locals as the Pawling Farm, the acreage long has been cherished by the Park Service for addition to Valley Forge, if only it could ever afford it.
What greatly concerns the Park Service, and what has prompted the NPS, NPCA, coalition of retirees, and even locally elected officials to challenge and speak out against ARC's decision to abandon its Park Service partnership in favor of the Pawling Farm, is what the non-profit could - not necessarily 'would,' but 'could' -- erect on that bucolic sweep of land. In all, they say nearly 20 acres, or roughly one-quarter of the 78, could be impacted to some degree by development.
A "Living History Overlay District" zoning ordinance that the opponents say ARC's representatives helped craft "allows a building footprint of over a half-a-million square feet. It allows an unlimited amount of sidewalks, plazas, and pervious paving, including parking lots," Barbara Pollarine, the historical park's deputy superintendent, told the Traveler back in March.
"It allows a hotel and unlimited ancillary uses, which will be built whether or not a museum ever is constructed. So, (ARC) may be successful, and I hope that they are in raising the money to build the museum," she added at the time, "but if they were not, if the museum were never built, the ordinance allows all these commercial uses to be built.”
Tuesday night, however, the Lower Providence Zoning Hearing Board voted to deny challenges to the project.
“The Zoning Hearing Board made the wrong decision,” says Cinda Waldbuesser, NPCA's senior program manager in Pennsylvania. “Valley Forge National Historical Park is a national icon that deserves better, and NPCA will continue fighting to protect its historic character.”
The appeal filed by NPCA and Lower Providence residents asserted that the ordinance allowing ARC's project is spot zoning because the development it permits is inconsistent and incompatible with the neighboring national parkland and other open space. Under Pennsylvania law, spot zoning is illegal. The appeal also claims that the ordinance is preempted by federal law because it would undermine the National Park Service's role in managing Valley Forge National Historical Park.
“We await the board’s written decision to learn its precise reasoning, but we believe that the decision is contrary to the law and is wrong,” says Ms. Waldbuesser. “We put on a very strong case, including testimony from national experts, which clearly illustrates that the ordinance is spot zoning and is preempted by federal law.”
Experts including the Coalition of Park Service Retirees, the National Park Service, and planning and traffic experts testified against the incompatible development proposal.
NPCA officials say ARC's proposal would change the character of Valley Forge by allowing a museum; a conference center, a 99-room hotel; as well as parking lots for buses, RVs, and cars on what now is open meadows and woods—an area that was vital to the Continental Army encampment during 1777-78.
“Valley Forge National Historical Park serves as an irreplaceable living classroom for those who seek to learn more about the encampment, a seminal time in our history,” said Adrian Scott Fine, director, Northeast field office, National Trust for Historic Preservation. “We are concerned that the negative aspects of the American Revolution Center development will substantially outweigh its positive features.”
ARC officials have maintained their plans are being misconstrued.
“There’s no campground. The restaurants will be within the museum, as with most museums. There is an education conference center that may have some number of rooms associated with it," ZeeAnn Mason, a senior vice president for external affairs with ARC, said back in March. "I think there is a lot of confusion by people that maybe don’t understand ordinances. This is an overlay ordinance that is connected to four underlying ordinances. It’s very complicated stuff. But what the ordinance allows, and what our plans are, as with any ordinance, are two different things.”
Ms. Mason contends that when all is said and done, only two acres of land will have a building footprint on it, largely because much of the museum will be underground.
The Lower Providence Zoning Hearing Board now has 45 days to issue its written decision.
“Once the Board issues its written decision, we plan to appeal,” said Ms. Waldbuesser. “The integrity of Valley Forge remains at risk and we must ensure our national icon is protected for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.”