Township in a sand trap

Columnist : Albert Paschall

In 1957 Philadelphia’s Schuylkill Expressway connected to the Pennsylvania Turnpike right at Route 202, at the time the main highway from New Jersey to Delaware in the heart of Montgomery County’s tiny Upper Merion Township.  Within a decade the number of jobs had tripled, houses were built as fast as they could be around what later would become the state’s largest mall.  The rest of the world came to know Upper Merion by its postal designation: King of Prussia.

Land in King of Prussia is expensive.  An acre around the mall with retail zoning is selling for well over $1 million.  Traffic is often congested with more than 300,000 people working within 10 miles of the mall but as former Pennsylvania Lt. Governor Mark Singel once joked: “a lot of towns in the state would love to have King of Prussia’s problems.”

That expensive land has been the township’s biggest problem for nearly 50 years.  From around 1960 when the former General Electric Aerospace Company brought 3,000 employees to be mid-way between New York and Washington DC township residents and developers have regularly been in fierce battles over one building project after another.  Now with over 10 million square feet of office buildings and stores the township is always trying to balance the fact that the Upper Merion School District has one of the highest expenditures per student in the state and residents have the lowest taxes in the county.

Except for one tract of land about a ¼ mile from the mall:  the Valley Forge Golf Course.  Since 1962 when township voters approved a non-binding referendum to buy its 135 acres, a mandate the supervisors of the time ignored, 4 developers have brought plans for the golf course to the township’s zoning board only to walk away in frustration when Upper Merion simply refused to consider changing the tract’s agricultural zoning.

Five years ago developers presented plans to change the tract’s use to the township’s zoning hearing board.  Under the plan two hotels, three office buildings and apartments with a shopping center would be built that would maximize the land’s value.  The developer’s case is well made.  There’s a reasonable argument that since all the areas around the golf course are built out then the owners of the parcel deserve to build on their land.

On the other hand the owners of the property have enjoyed cheap taxes for nearly a half century.  Tax bills that have been drastically lower for a golf course than they would be on any office, apartment building or shopping center all the while the land’s value was rising dramatically “ if it were rezoned.

After more than a year of painstaking hearings the township rejected the proposal.  The developer sued the township in the county courts.

Aided by friend of the court briefs from the Chamber of Commerce the county court and the Pennsylvania superior court upheld the township’s denial of the zoning change.  The land appeared to be on the course for permanent preservation.  Until last week when in a rare move the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided to hear the developer’s appeal.

It’s the last round for the Valley Forge Golf Course.  If the justices rule in favor of the developer the township loses any semblance of control that it might have had over the tract and, of course, its recreational use.  If the developer’s plans are rejected by the court then the township is pressed to find the land’s ultimate determination.

Upper Merion Township is caught in a legal sand trap.  They’ll take their best shot in the Supreme Court and hope to come out of it but odds are slim that another generation will play on the Valley Forge Golf Course.

What could have been on the golf course is already being discussed in Upper Merion.

Always perfect hindsight says the township should have bought it 40 years ago or compromised with one of the developers over the years to maintain part of the golf course.  But experts say that built out to its ultimate capacity the parcel today is worth over $50 million and that’s too expensive a game to compromise now.

There are King of Prussias in-the-making all over the state.  Their malls might not be as big or their highways as complex but wherever one highway crosses another or another off-ramp is built there’s potential for development.  The hope in Pennsylvania’s regressive economy is that townships all over the state will someday soon have the problems of the robust King of Prussia market.  For them the lesson of the Valley Forge Golf Course is that now is the time to plan for them.

Albert Paschall
Senior Commentator
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.
[email protected]