Officials for the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education believe they can preserve 24 acres in Northwest Philadelphia known as the “Boy Scout” tract and have suspended their quest for a developer that would likely have built housing on the site — a plan that provoked fierce opposition from neighbors.
The center’s board of trustees made the announcement Tuesday, saying they have “several potential opportunities for preservation” for the wooded land on Port Royal Avenue in Upper Roxborough, likely putting to rest a dispute with local residents.
Mike Weilbacher, the center’s executive director, said in an email on the announcement that the board “is immediately pausing the process to prioritize the exploration of potential preservation possibilities.”
In a separate interview, Weilbacher said the board hopes to make an announcement about full preservation of the site in “upcoming weeks,” but he had no firm date.
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“I think this is very good news,” Weilbacher said. “I think we’ve always wanted a preservation outcome for the Boy Scout tract.”
He said news over the summer that the center was considering selling the land for development “jarred loose” new possibilities for preservation.
While no preservation deal has yet been made, Weilbacher said the fact that there are now several paths to conserve the tract gives the board much-needed hope. Those possibilities all include funding for a conservation easement that would permanently preserve the entire tract.
No doubt, that would be popular with neighbors in Upper Roxborough and Shawmont Valley. Officials raised their ire in late June when they first announced the center would request potential developers to submit proposals to build on the land, while trying to keep the impact to a minimum. Sept. 23 was the deadline for the proposals, though the center has not received any as of Tuesday.
“Obviously we’re pleased that the Trustees have decided to pull back from the abyss,” Rich Giordano, president of the Upper Roxborough Civic Association, said in an email. “Our efforts now shift to helping them both to find funds to help conserve this property once and for all and to take steps not only to preserve it but to do restoration work there as well.”
Giordano said the news would be a focus of his group’s meeting Wednesday.
Holly Terry, a resident who has fought the development proposal, said she is “excited to learn more about the preservation proposals” but is anxious for more details.
The land is a rare tract of undeveloped, open space in Philadelphia, and is in an area of the city marked more by a rural vibe than an urban one. A virtual meeting at the end of June drew more than 100 people, many of whom organized to fight the proposal.
At the time, Weilbacher and three members of the board said the center planned to ensure parts of the tract remain preserved, but details about what level of development would be allowed were scarce. The land is zoned for single and multifamily homes, passive recreation, adult and child care, community centers, and community gardens or farms.
The nonprofit Schuylkill Center offers programs in environmental education, art, and land stewardship, as well as summer camps. It owns 340 acres protected through a conservation easement with Natural Lands between the Schuylkill and Wissahickon Valley Park and is the largest privately owned open space in the city.
It has held the scout tract separately after acquiring it through a donation more than 40 years ago. The center twice applied for state funding to preserve the scout tract but was turned down. In the 1980s, it sold off 10 acres of the tract to a church to raise money.
But the center, which draws funding from grants, contributions, and program revenue, doesn’t have the finances to maintain the scout tract, officials said. Its initial proposal to develop the site was to fund $5 million to upgrade and repair the center’s aging buildings.
The center’s main building was built in 1968 and needs work, Weilbacher has said. The center operates a wildlife clinic that hasn’t been “touched for 30 years,” he noted, as well as a nature museum that also needs maintenance. Further, the staff has to maintain trails and land, all of which costs money.
Green Tree Run flows through the property, which is adjacent to the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve. The board, in its request for proposal for a developer, specified that any developer would have to agree to a conservation easement that would protect two ravines totaling 12 acres, or half the property.
The board began seeking a buyer this summer who would agree to limit the amount of buildings, adhere to stricter storm-water measures than required by the city, agree not to seek zoning variances, and who would install any water and sewer lines off Eva Street, not along Royal Avenue.
Now, Weilbacher is confident that one of the emerging conservation deals could fund “once-in-a-generation changes in our staff, in our facilities, and the programming on our land.”