K Hovnanian Homes' plans for the nearby development of the Corson property. The top left corner shows the lot that would be left for the site's historic structures. by Brendan Sample In the continued …
by Brendan Sample
In the continued debate over a proposed townhouse development around Abolition Hall, the historic significance of the entire property, surrounding land and all, was the focus of the latest Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors meeting. Following up on their efforts to protect the property, members of the Friends of Abolition Hall called up local historian William Bolger to testify on the importance of the land.
While no solution on the townhouse controversy was reached during the meeting, the Board members were able to hear more information that will assist them in deciding whether or not to allow K. Hovnanian Homes to build the townhouses. The current owners do have a deal in place to sell the property to Hovnanian if the Board approves, but the FAH has been attempting to block the sale on the grounds of historical preservation.
As a retired National Landmarks Program Manager for the National Park Service, Bolger was ruled by the Board to be an expert on the impact that new development can have on historic properties. Though Abolition Hall and the surrounding buildings are not classified as National Historic Landmarks, they are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
One of Bolger’s main concerns was the fact that Hovnanian’s application listed Abolition Hall, Hovenden House and Maulsby Barn as the historic properties, and not the surrounding land. He felt that the significant loss of “agricultural land” that would be caused by the townhouses’ construction would be detrimental to the overall site.
In his opinion, if Hovnanian were to compromise by surrendering two acres from their proposed townhouse area, it would likely be enough of a “reasonable concession” to ensure that the Abolition property had enough room to prosper.
“The township’s interest should be in preserving the potential of the site,” Bolger said. “A certain but lesser amount of development should be removed from the property.”
In Hovnanian’s counterargument, attorney Julie Von Spreckelsen attempted to prove that the historic property did in fact constitute only the three buildings instead of the entire field. One of the arguments was that NPS’ official listing for the property does mention the property specifically as Abolition Hall, Hovenden House and Maulsby Barn, without mentioning the surrounding land. Von Spreckelsen also emphasized the fact that Hovnanian’s application for the townhouses had already been adequately fulfilled to the standards outlined by the Board, which should be enough to approve it.
While Bolger could not speak to the specific adequacy of the application, his experience with historic properties indicated to him that the development as it is proposed would ultimately result in both short-term and long-term damage to the space. It was his opinion that this would happen regardless of what the official listing did or did not specifically mention.
Whitemarsh residents in attendance at the meeting largely agreed with Bolger’s opinions on preservation, and had specifically come out to the meeting to support FAH’s hopes of preservation.
“I just wanted to confirm if facts have changed based on boxes on a piece of paper being checked or not,” said David Miller, who took the stand to question Bolger, wanting to confirm details of his testimony.
Before calling up Bolger, Friends attorney Michael Fiorentino had also hoped to receive testimony from James Schmid of Schmid and Company Consulting Ecologists as an expert on the environmental impact that the townhouses could have on the property. The Board members, however, ruled that such a testimony would be irrelevant to the conditional use issue at hand. They recommended that Schmid return during the land development phase of the process.
This ongoing issue will be revisited at the next meeting of the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors. The FAH will then have its next opportunity to call experts to give relevant testimonies on the potential impact of the townhouses on the property. The next meeting will be held on August 16 at 7 p.m. in the Township Large Meeting Room on 616 Germantown Pike.
Brendan Sample can be reached at email@example.com
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