August 30, 2022
We announced two months ago that we were exploring the potential sale of 24 acres of land to fund a number of transformational, once-in-a-generation initiatives among them: investing in our staff who bring the Center and the land to life, education programs, and aging infrastructure including our wildlife clinic, the only rehabilitation facility in the City. Unfortunately, this announcement has upset many of our neighbors and civic partners. I’m hoping that a more thorough explanation may address their concerns.
Most importantly, we have made no decision to sell; our Board of Trustees is simply exploring all of its options, and has released a Request for Proposals (RFP) packed with conservation requirements. The deadline to receive a proposal is late September, and any decision, even to sell the land at all, is many months away, and if the board does not receive a satisfactory proposal, we will not sell.
As part of this process, we are simultaneously exploring the interest of potential donors, grantors, and community leaders to preserve the entire tract. Though the work is still unfolding and the outcome is uncertain, we hope to have an update in the near future to share with our members and the community. This possibility is our organization’s priority at the moment, without question, and if this succeeds, we sidestep the proposal process completely.
Lost in the discussion is the fact that the Schuylkill Center has already permanently protected 420 acres of open space in Roxborough, more than any other entity. Our 340-acre campus in Upper Roxborough, comprising forests, fields, streams, and ponds, is under a permanent protective covenant, the largest privately protected open space in the City of Philadelphia. Back in the 1980s, we sold an additional 80+ acres to the city to be merged into Fairmount Park, also permanently protected. And if we sell the Boy Scout Tract, at least 12 of its 24 acres (and maybe more) will be protected too, resulting in 432 acres of protected land.
Turning to the RFP, we built numerous conservation safeguards into the document, like a conservation easement permanently protecting the steep slopes and floodplain. The easement is a legal agreement that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values; this will likely be a unique easement in that it requires a wooded corridor for the safe passage of migrating toads. We also ask that the floodplain, stormwater, and steep slopes measures exceed the city’s requirements, and that any development fit into the character of the neighborhood.
All of our trustees share a commitment for our twin mission of environmental stewardship and education. If we sell, we are seeking to leverage this possibility into an investment in our organization and its staff, in alignment with our strategic and master planning.
We continue to welcome your thoughts and engage in open dialogue. Please send your comments to us at email@example.com. The Center’s staff is collecting all input and sharing this information with the Center’s leadership and Board.
June 13, 2022
At a joint meeting last week of two civic associations, the Upper Roxborough Civic Association and the Residents of the Shawmont Valley, the group discussed the Boy Scout Tract, a 24-acre parcel of land at the corner of Port Royal Avenue and Eva Street. The Tract has been owned by the Center for more than 40 years, and while the tract was on the meeting’s agenda, the Center was not present, but instead will present to a second joint meeting of the two civics later in the month.
As the director of the Schuylkill Center, allow me to explain the unfolding situation.
Founded in 1965, the Center, with headquarters nearby off Hagy’s Mill Road, runs educational programming on a 340-acre forested campus across Port Royal Avenue from the Boy Scout Tract. We also operate the Wildlife Clinic, the City’s only wildlife rehabilitation center, located down Port Royal Avenue from the Tract. Our main campus is protected by a perpetual 2010 conservation easement held by Natural Lands, the largest such easement held by the organization within city limits.
While the 340 acres was donated to us by two families committed to environmental education, the Boy Scout Tract was given to us by one of those families to use as we needed, and was deliberately omitted from the conservation easement. Given its distance from the Visitor Center, we have been unable to find any programmatic use for the site in all these decades, and have almost no capacity to manage or maintain the site.
However, wanting of course to find a conservation outcome, we worked with Natural Lands in 2014 and again in ’15 to apply for state funding to permanently protect this site too– but were declined both times. The state told Natural Lands then that because our 340 acres of open space exists nearby, it was not a cost-effective use of their funds to preserve this parcel too. Sadly, we were forced to move on from this possibility.
Then, more than a year ago, we were approached by an individual to purchase the property for building 1-2 private homes. Knowing the sensitivity of any proposal for this parcel at this moment in Roxborough history, when the community is deeply worried about open space protection, we formed a task force of our nonprofit’s trustees, who have been carefully and cautiously moving forward.
Realizing the organization could not accept the first and only proposal for this important property, we began crafting a Request for Proposals, again engaging Natural Lands, the region’s most important natural areas organization, to help us assess the parcel. As many Shawmont Valley residents know, the Boy Scout Tract includes the headwaters of the Green Tree Run, one of the city’s few unimpeded streams, which arises on the tract, flows downhill past the backyards of Shawmont Avenue residents, and pours into the Schuylkill River below. The forested site is also steep, Green Tree Run carving out a surprisingly deep valley for such a small stream.
The RFP has not yet been released, an action the Center plans to take after these public meetings.
Please know the Center is seeking proposals for limited development that can be done without variances or special exceptions. We also seek to protect the site’s steep slopes and Green Tree Run through a perpetual conservation easement– future owners cannot apply for a variance to develop that portion of the site. Furthermore, any proposal must address the neighborhood’s long-standing request for precluding sewer and water from coming down Port Royal Avenue. The proposal will also address neighborhood stormwater concerns, as there are currently no stormwater controls on streets in the area. And the toads that famously march across Eva Street to the Reservoir every spring will be protected by a permanent forested corridor between the site and the reservoir, written into the easement. Finally, the proposal will address how it protects the character of the neighborhood, located as it is in a National Register historic district.
“This is an exploratory process,” notes Christopher McGill, president of the nonprofit’s board, a businessman who was raised in Roxborough and has deep roots in the community. “No decisions have been made, and the RFP has not been released. Given our mission of protecting and interpreting the natural environment, the Center is committed to a conservation-minded outcome for any proposal we accept.” And any decision the Center makes must be approved by a supermajority of the center’s 23 trustees, most of whom either live in or near Roxborough or work in the environmental arena, and all of whom are committed to the Center’s mission.
If you have any questions or concerns, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And we’ll return to this important topic as the story develops.
By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director
, there needs to be a route to preserving this acreage. It’s irreplaceable. Thank you for your attention. Dan Jefferson
The route to preserving it is not to sell it. There’s no real explanation here as to why this tract needs to be treated differently than the rest of the property. Makes you wonder what would happen if the rest of the 340 acres were under a conservation easement.
Even though you say “we have been unable to find any programmatic use for the site in all these decades” to me, undeveloped, natural land is a perfectly fine use. Before you pursue a sale I’d like to know what you plan to do with the proceeds. Unless you have a very good, specific plan, I’d rather that you continue to hold on to the property.
Thank you for this careful explanation and the incredible work that you all do at The Center. I was not aware of the backstory of the surrounding lands but having spent three years staying in Roxborough am certainly aware of its beauty. I am sure we all appreciate the efforts you are making to maintain the area while finding viable solutions. Thank you for your terrific work and stewardship.
Marion Wilson, Environmental Artist and Professor
Will Roxborough Green Space be reactivated to lend support and to lend another voice that will keep this tract in a natural state.
Philadelphia needs as many green space tracts as it can get for a city with a population over one million.
Can you elaborate on how you have capacity to maintain 340 acres on one side of Port Royal but not 24 adjacent acres on the other? Maybe Natural Lands would be willing to re-engage? They manage to maintain thousands of non-contiguous acres across multiple counties.
Don’t sell this site. Find another way to raise money. Legally, you posses the Schuylkill Center property, but it’s a unique piece of land in all of Philadelphia and there’s a clear right and wrong in regards to what you do with it. No dollar amount is worth slicing it up further for unnecessary development.
One of the lessons learned from the pandemic was the crucial importance of conserved urban green space. In Philadelphia there’s not enough of it! And the opportunity to conserve a beautiful area that’s already owned by a respected environmental organization is too important to pass up.
Have you assessed the comparative long-term land-management cost of conservation ownership of the property vs. the costs of administering, monitoring, and enforcing a conservation easement? Continued ownership by the Center or another conservation entity such as Natural Lands could potentially cost less than a conservation easement. Please look into this and do what’s necessary to avoid “deaccessioning” a natural asset that enhances the wildlife habitat value of the Center’s other land. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!
You say you can’t find any use for this land? What about habitat for the many animals that call it home now? All the building in Roxborough is taking away so many animal homes. Don’t they count as to what the land is used for?
I have been so disappointed in the center once I learned you have shoots to thin the deer population. Selling this tract to developers will make it worse for the animals, that’s nature, what you’re supposed to protect.
Don’t sell them out.
Exactly. It IS in use!
This is extremely, disappointing, and counter to the purpose and value of the nature center. I can’t imagine that donors and supporters would agree with selling 24 acres for capital improvements. I hope you will listen to the actual donors and supporters and change your course on this.
Here are some photos of the Boy Scout Tract so people can see what would be lost or degraded:
Thank you for posting these images.
Development is not needed or ideal. Has the center engaged the local residents for fundraising? No. Ive lived over here 2 years and have never received anything on fundraising, the centers services, etc.
If the issue is money for maintenance, then engage the community and lets raise the money!
I am PR person by trade so if you truly need assistance, ask for help.
Please, please, please – preserve this parcel. My daughter is currently in Girl Scouts and has been on night hikes to this area many times. So much land has been taken for development. We need to find other ways to preserve this land. I k it implore the schuylkill center to find another option.
Pingback: What Will Become of the Boy Scout Tract? Civic Associations Engage – Grid Magazine
There is no question in my mind this needs to stay pristine and untouched. The open land and wildlife need protecting, not to mention this is exactly what makes our area so special. As the climate changes, we need these green spaces to counteract harsh conditions.
We saw a sign about this issue in the neighborhood the other night and just learned about what’s going on. We want to help and we beg you not to sell this beautiful forestland. My husband is a law professor at Penn and Notre Dame and a commercial real estate lawyer in Philadelphia. We appreciate and value the great work you do, and my husband said he would be happy to volunteer to help. He’s helped other organizations in the area like our children’s school secure grants and funding, and I’m sure he could help. If our recent heatwave showed me anything about what our fight against climate change is going to require, it’s the immense, priceless value of old forests— our lawn was scorched but the air and trees in the park across the way remained green and fresh throughout those hellish seven days. It was real life magic. My family are from Paris and New York and I’ve lived in cities all over the world. One of the best, most beautiful and unique things about this city, about Philadelphia, is its beautiful, wild parks. Spaces like that are irreplaceable, and our forest here is beautiful beyond words— beyond the Notre Dame cathedral, beyond anything New York City’s very hot concrete jungle has to offer. Please let the community help you preserve this incredible, special forest.
Commenting as someone without any expertise but lots of imagination, could the site be used to teach low impact or no impact camping. If there were some environmentally friendly platform tents or tiny houses with composting toilets, they could be rented by individuals who need a retreat or groups who want to learn about camping. (And an Iraaqui guest house would be nice. ). Could generate income for the environmental center and be a huge community resource. Why don’t the scouts use it?