The Center’s Boy Scout Tract

An aerial photo of the Boy Scout Tract, showing the Higher Ground church on Eva Street on the right and a 19th-century home on the left. Green Tree Run flows across the bottom of the photo.

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 boyscouttract@schuylkillcenter.org. And we’ll return to this important topic as the story develops. 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

9 thoughts on “The Center’s Boy Scout Tract

  1. , 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

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