Issues for Open Space and Greenways
Open space preservation continues to be a high priority in Chester County. However, the challenges to the permanent preservation of open land are growing. Many of those challenges are presented here for consideration.
Linking Protected Open Space into a Regional Network
Clustering, Out-filling, Greenways, Open Space Corridors, Regional Planning
Scattered development patterns are hindering open space preservation because isolated open space parcels are less likely to receive grant funding because they have a lower potential to become part of a linked corridor. Random development has hindered efforts to create regional networks of protected open space. Scattered development patterns fragment open spaces and make it difficult to protect large clusters of open space. Scattered development is promoted in part by poorly planned infrastructure expansion and building schools far from existing developed areas.
Taking a regional, school district-wide, or county-wide approach to identifying open space protection opportunities presents a substantial coordination challenge. Like other forms of public infrastructure, protected open space networks cross municipal boundaries. There have been suggestions that open space planning should be conducted on a school district level. Others have called for an official county map to preserve open space. A regional approach would also help to create protected farmland clusters that extend into Lancaster and Cecil Counties, where farming remains a viable industry.
While many larger open space parcels have been protected, there will be a greater effort required to link them, and to protect the smaller remaining parcels. In the past, land trusts focused their efforts on protecting large (40 to 100-acre) parcels. However, as these parcels are protected, the trusts will need to focus on smaller isolated parcels, which in many places are the only remaining open spaces. In most parts of Chester County, parcels with the very highest natural or cultural resource values have already been protected. It is anticipated that more effort will be required to protect what is left. Open space protection efforts are more likely to involve multiple owners, complex negotiations, and funding packages. Also, competitive grants favor larger parcels with unique resources, of which there are fewer remaining in the county.
In urban and suburban settings, open space protection programs continue to have difficulty linking and out-filling to make clusters. Linking protected open spaces has been less successful in developed areas compared with rural areas. The trend toward low density development occurring in suburban communities is posing a long term threat to the continued protection of open space. Furthermore, there is still a misperception that open land such as golf courses, school properties, and private gardens will remain undeveloped in the long term. As a result, some municipalities do not realize that their open spaces are not permanently protected.
Public Recreational Facilities, Parks, and Preserves
Active, Passive, Playgrounds, State Game Lands, Forest, Watershed, and Historic Preserves
There is a perception that Chester County government has been lax in planning for trails and is losing opportunities to create them. There is a concern that the window of opportunity to create trail corridors is fading fast. Unprecedented growth and increasing traffic volumes are complicating efforts to create pedestrian links connecting downtowns and parks to homes, businesses, and places of employment. At the same time, county residents are requesting trail projects like those that have been successful in nearby Montgomery and New Castle Counties. This issue is most pressing in the urbanized areas of eastern Chester County, where there is a concern that the county does not put sufficient emphasis on trails.
The lack of a county-wide recreation plan hinders efforts to pursue state and federal funding for the protection of open space for recreational purposes. The absence of a county parks and recreation plan creates a situation that reduces the potential of the county to conduct multi-municipal planning and pursue competitive grants. The lack of a county-wide trails plan also makes it difficult for municipalities to identify systematic way to link the open spaces within their borders to those in nearby municipalities.
Municipal ordinances may not properly address open space recreation issues. Municipalities are more likely to miss out on opportunities for grant- or developer-based funding. Some municipalities do not address recreation planning in sufficient detail. As a result, developers who propose to create recreation-based open spaces have little, if any, guidance or encouragement. Municipalities that do not address recreation are less likely to receive competitive grants for open space preservation from state and county programs.
State game lands and forests have not been sufficiently buffered from encroaching development around their borders. There are a number of natural preserves in Chester County such as state forests, state game lands, and properties owned by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. Most of these are located in western Chester County in areas that are less developed than the rest of the county. There is a concern that increasing development will surround these preserves much like development has surrounded Valley Forge National Historic Park. Such isolation could inhibit animal migration, including animals that serve to pollinate plant species, and could lead to inbreeding and lower disease resistance for species within these preserves.
The preservation of open space for water resource protection has not been prominent in Chester County. Only a small portion of Chester County's open spaces have been protected specifically for the preservation of parcels that surround and drain onto valuable surface water resources. With the growing need for integrated county-wide water resource planning, there is an opportunity to enhance open space protection efforts by placing more focus on water resources. A good example of a water resource-based preserve is adjacent to the Octoraro Creek in Lower Oxford Township. There are also opportunities for the protection of floodplain areas along the Schuylkill River.
Regional historic resource areas, such as Valley Forge National Historic Park, tend to be surrounded by development with little opportunity for expansion. Protected open spaces that preserve historic resources are often located in urban or suburban areas. Unfortunately, the central location of these historic resources means that they are likely to be surrounded by 20th century development, which leaves little buffer between modern buildings and historic context. Historic burial grounds at former church sites often associated with low-income or minority populations are especially under threat.
There is a need to better publicize the fact that public recreational open space protection can be a means for addressing a key health issue, the obesity epidemic. The federal government has recognized obesity as an epidemic impacting significant numbers of Americans. Excessive weight gain is affecting children as they spend more time watching television and on computers. Exercise, especially walking, within public open spaces is a key tool for reversing this trend. This link between open space and public health can be used as an impetus for pursuing more open space funding in the future.
Chester County is becoming divided into areas where farm preservation is the main open space funding priority, and areas where recreational facilities are the main funding priority. Municipal parks are still being acquired in some parts of the county. Currently, most park acquisition and construction is taking place in the central part of the county. More densely developed municipalities, which tend to be to the east, have less open land for new parks. These municipalities are focusing on funding new trails to link existing parks with population centers. As land prices increase, there will be a need to accommodate both more expensive farmland preservation, and construction costs for parks and trails.
The county's traditional hiking routes are increasingly threatened as development and traffic volumes make it increasingly difficult to hike these non-permanent "social trails." There are a number of cross-county hiking routes that have been part of Chester County culture for decades. There is strong local support for protecting these routes or turning them into permanent off-road trails. However, there has been no study to evaluate the viability of these alignments. As a result, these routes are continually changed, and development and traffic concerns make sections of these routes increasingly difficult for safe hiking.
There has been a lack of consistent coordination between the various state and county agencies which are involved with recreation planning, pedestrian transportation planning, and open space protection. There has been no region-wide interdisciplinary approach to park and trail planning. Recreation land use planning, ordinance updates, and official maps provide only a patchwork of solutions. A lack of proper parks and recreation standards, ownership and management expertise hinders open space preservation. A coordinated county-wide approach would help to more efficiently target county open space funds, and increase the likelihood of receiving state grants.
Restoration Sites and Development Initiated Open Space
Brownfields, Greyfields, Utility Corridors, Homeowners Association Open Spaces
There is a perception that local ordinances promote low-density developments, thus pushing development into open space areas. While there has been much progress with securing open space, there has been a shortfall on the redevelopment side, including revitalization and brownfield re-use, to reduce sprawl. There is a concern that programs which promote higher density in designated growth areas may raise the ire of residents who view density as a threat to the county's traditional rural culture.
There is a lack of planning for the management of open spaces in new developments. Although homebuilders commonly include open space in their developments, they may not establish a management plan. The management of open space resources, from natural habitat to recreational facilities, is generally left to homeowner associations (HOA) who may have limited experience in these areas.
Utilities and public services pose both opportunities and threats to the protection of open space. Expansion of infrastructure like roads and sewage treatment facilities can consume open space. However, utility corridors can be used for greenways. Schools are commonly constructed in rural areas rather than near population centers where students can walk to school. Likewise, new businesses and offices are not always near infrastructure, where they would have less impact on areas with open space resources.
There are few incentives to assist local governments or nonprofit land trusts to demolish structures and paved areas that are no longer viable, such as areas that are chronically subject to flooding. In many municipalities, there are still ample opportunities for demolition in floodplains to create open space. Demolition in urban areas could also be a means to create active recreation parks and playgrounds. Some municipalities have raised funds to purchase and demolish unused buildings that were eyesores. If demolition funding were available that required the placement of an open space easement, more protected open space could be created.
Open Space Protected by Non Profit Land Trusts
Natural, Cultural, Watershed
Rising land costs are making it more difficult to finance open space protection. Land trusts are finding it increasingly challenging to raise funds to ease open space. Trusts must commonly rely on complex deals involving the leveraging of state, county, local, and private funding. Open space funding grants are static, while real estate values rise. Since the process of easing open space can take a decade or more, the trusts have to gauge how much funding will be needed over a course of years. Public funding available to the land trusts for open space protection is often based on a bond referendum with a limited time period.
There is a growing concern that public pressure to modify protection easements may threaten the protection value of those easements. It is anticipated that there will be increased pressure to modify easements on open space as isolated open spaces become more surrounded by development. If there is strong community support for altering an easement, the land trusts would like to ensure that there will be appropriate mitigation, such as protecting two new acres for every acre lost.
Cultural and political changes are creating new challenges for open space protection and monitoring by land trusts. The population of landowners with large parcels is aging, and their heirs tend to be less interested in living on family lands. There are also ongoing changes to federal legislation regarding tax breaks to landowners who donate easements. Furthermore, land trusts do not always have accurate property boundaries for older easements, making monitoring more difficult. New county-funded grants now require permanent survey markers, but some smaller land trusts may not have funding to survey their parcels.
Open Space Funding, Staffing, and Resources
There is insufficient funding for coordinating open space preservation and conducting field monitoring. Municipalities ultimately make the decisions on open space. The county has limited formal authority to protect open space or to directly guide development. Municipal turnover means local officials are not experienced with open space issues. Furthermore, as more open space is protected through locally passed initiatives, there will be an increased need for professional monitoring.
Rising land costs remain the major obstacle to open space protection. Rising land costs are making it more difficult for preservation programs to finance the protection of open space. This scenario encourages farmers to subdivide, develop or sell their property, and buy more affordable land outside the county. Although fee-simple acquisition is still being done by land trusts, it is increasingly expensive.
Public funds for open space may not provide reliably consistent funding amounts. There is no permanently established state fund for protecting open space. Therefore, there is always a certain level of uncertainty as to how open space projects will be funded. In Chester County voter-referendums have been quite successful. Funding for open space education efforts, however, is tenuous. Municipalities do not have the resources to inform residents, businesses, or municipal officials regarding open space and natural resource protection.
The demand for open space funding currently exceeds the funding supply. It is generally accepted that more landowners would apply for open space protection funding if more funding was available. Only 50 to 75 percent of projects submitted to the county get funded, however, and typically those that receive funds do not get the full amount.
There are complications with state funding for open space. State funding for open space protection has become less popular due to the state's increased access requirements. As a result, local efforts are relying more on county and local funding. As Pennsylvania's Growing Greener II funding draws down, the state is providing a smaller match to county and locally-generated funding. There is a need for a permanent stream of open space funding from the state since bond and referendum-based funding sources are limited in time. Land trusts are avoiding using Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) funds for some projects because the DCNR access requirements do not meet landowner wishes. DCNR has also been known to change their access requirements after awarding a land protection grant. Such a change can upset landowners and discourage the land trusts from using DCNR funding.
Controversies regarding how public money is being spent can complicate the protection of open space. There have been calls for greater access to publicly funded open space. Public access often leads to community support, but it can also potentially impact the resources that the open space funding is intended to protect. Some people view open space preservation as impacting land available for affordable housing.
The Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) can be an effective tool at the regional level, but the municipality-based land use regulations in Pennsylvania can complicate such an approach. TDR is being considered and adopted more than it was ten years ago. However, open space education at the local level is not consistent. Few in the general public fully understand how zoning works in relation to open space protection.
There is still debate about the methodology used to determine how much open space in Chester County is protected versus how much is developed. There is not yet a consistent and reliable way to efficiently calculate the amount, location, and intensity of land development. Ideally there should be a systematic method of reporting how many acres were developed in a given calendar year. Likewise, calculating the number of protected acres is a labor intensive process, and it relies on data from various sources that may be inaccurate or incomplete.
Open Space Restoration, Management, and Access
There are no guidelines for managing the wide variety of protected open spaces in a consistent manner. Large areas of the county are protected as open space and need to be managed in perpetuity. Management concerns include maintaining native vegetation and biodiversity; providing security and liability coverage; trail access and maintenance; and securing maintenance funding and staff. The management of open space is not always considered in the discussion of preserving it. Each municipality handles open space management its own way.
There is a lack of guidelines for HOA to follow. Few retention basins are properly managed and most are mowed. Too often, riparian buffers are not maintained. Protected open spaces are not always maintained to ensure that they do not become environmentally degraded. As areas with large unprotected open spaces have diminished, protected open spaces are becoming the last remaining areas for maintaining natural communities, water quality, and air quality. Efforts to promote the preservation of open space do not always include the use and maintenance of protected land. Such properties need to be managed in perpetuity. Management concerns include maintaining native vegetation and biodiversity, and securing maintenance funding and staff.
In the past, many protected open spaces were not adequately designed to accommodate recreational access and other uses. There is a need to ensure access to protected open spaces where appropriate so that the public can "connect" with lands that were publicly funded. In most settings, trails linking to open spaces are the preferred mechanism for providing this access. Access must be balanced to avoid overuse. The carrying capacity of open space should be evaluated to determine how it can be used for recreation without damaging the natural resources of the land. There needs to be better education so that the public knows that open space preserves can only support a limited number of visitors before they get damaged by overuse. Furthermore, there needs to be more guidance to municipalities regarding security and liability coverage, trail access, and maintenance.