July 25, 2008

Valley Forge Development Battle a Siege

By Jeff Gammage, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Jul. 25--A zoning hearing that will help determine the future of Valley Forge National Historical Park stretched into the night yesterday, the arguments of attorneys delaying testimony and comments from people who wished to speak.

More than 75 people attended the hearing in Eagleville, Montgomery County, concerning a plan by a nonprofit group to build a museum and conference center on private land located inside the park. More than two hours after the meeting started at 7 p.m., the first witness finally spoke, questioned by attorneys for the National Parks Conservation Association and five local property owners who oppose the development.

Her qualifications as a land planner were immediately challenged.

"A travesty," one older spectator said, walking out of the hearing.

The zoning hearing was to proceed much like a trial, with the sides calling witnesses, introducing exhibits, and making arguments. The conservation group failed to get two members of the Lower Providence Township Zoning Hearing Board to recuse themselves, seeking their removal based on earlier views they shared about the project.

"This is not really a zoning case. It's a complaint about the project," said attorney Neil Sklaroff, representing the American Revolution Center at Valley Forge, which wants to build the museum and conference center.

The township has given the American Revolution Center at Valley Forge preliminary approval to proceed with plans for the big and highly controversial development.

The appeal contends that the project would trample the National Park Service's congressional mandate to manage and protect its lands. It also maintains that the ordinance governing the development constitutes "spot zoning," which is illegal in Pennsylvania.

The hearing, held at the Arcola Intermediate School, is a key proceeding in an ongoing controversy. When first proposed nearly a decade ago, the museum was to be built near the park's welcome center as part of a public-private partnership. Everyone liked that idea. But the marriage between the National Park Service and the American Revolution Center fell apart last year amid disputes over fund-raising, management and control. Now ARC is moving ahead on its own.

ARC owns 78 acres on the north side of the Schuylkill, a pocket of property virtually surrounded by the national park. The group plans to build a three-story museum, a four-story conference center with up to 99 rooms of lodging, and a structure containing bathrooms.

Funding for the $150 million project has been pledged from state, county and private sources.

Historians say the commissary for the Continental Army's 1777-78 winter encampment was located to the north -- though some experts dispute that -- and that the area served as staging grounds for the army's departure.

ARC describes its project as a proud and worthwhile addition to Valley Forge: the first museum and education center dedicated to interpreting and promoting the story of the American Revolution, a natural in the Philadelphia region and a necessity in a nation that's largely illiterate about the war.

The museum and learning center, ARC officials say, will generate 855 jobs and $50 million in "economic impact." Most important, it will offer the full and compelling story of the Revolution and its legacy.

ARC's opponents, which also includes the Friends of Valley Forge, say the project will damage the park.

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8110 or [email protected]


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