from Neighbors for Crebilly Facebook, 10/23/18
Whose brain doesn’t ache when it’s time to send that big piece of our yearly pie to our town, county, school district, state, and the federal government? It hurts our heads less, though, when we can see the essential services we get in return. Trash picked up. Roads paved. Kids educated. Fires fought. New Jersey defended from foreign invasion, etc. But no one likes paying higher taxes than necessary, or learning that someone else is not paying their fair share. We feel swindled. But it’s cheated we’ve been vis a vis the Crebilly Farm saga. The owners of that rare piece of idyllic eastern Chester County landscape, the Robinson family (heirs to the Acme Markets fortune and inheritors of Crebilly Farm) entered into a contract with Toll Brothers to pave our common legacy which experts conclude saw part of the Battle of the Brandywine. Toll’s and the Robinson’s plan to desecrate hallowed ground might suffice to get your dander up. If not, maybe knowing that you subsidized Crebilly Farm for decades will.
Unlike the vast majority of homeowners and landowners in the region, the Robinsons actually paid significantly reduced property taxes for Crebilly Farm because of a 1974 PA tax abatement measure called the “Clean and Green Program” (Act 319 ). The intent of this law was to encourage owners of 10 or more acres to conserve their land in return for large property tax breaks. However, no conservation easements are placed on enrolled land which is only safe for as long as the owners want to keep it open. For those who never intend to develop, Act 319 is a very fair deal for everyone: the landowner gets a nice tax reduction and taxpayers get the benefits of open space. For those like the Robinsons who decide to cash in on their land, Act 319 is nothing more than a decades-long tax holiday with an insultingly weak penalty for leaving the program: the sum of the last seven years of unadjusted taxes plus six percent interest. Even if a parcel has been enrolled since 1974, landowners only pay back seven years of unadjusted taxes instead of the full 44 year tab.
It’s a big tab we’ve picked up for the Robinsons. Instead of paying approximately $48,000 each year on the unadjusted assessment value of 322 acres, they pay just $6,519 in total on their open land. That’s less than what most homeowners pay for a house on one acre and it represents missing revenue for area taxing authorities who recoup that loss via higher taxes for the rest of us. In other words, if they had paid taxes based on the full assessed value of the land, everyone else’s tax bills would have been lower. Choosing to stay in the Clean and Green program would continue to be a fair arrangement: Crebilly would not send students to schools or cars to roads; it wouldn’t need sewers, traffic lights, or police protection. It wouldn’t need an army to defend it even if the original American army fought there. But now that they’ve chosen to leave Act 319 by selling to Toll, their “penalty” really becomes our penalty.
These absurd PA “rollback taxes” pale in comparison to what’s in place in New York state. Withdrawing from one of that state’s preservation programs costs the landowner the last 10 years of unadjusted taxes – multiplied by five – plus interest. NY’s exit fee in many cases is greater than what was saved with lowered tax bills. Consequently, very few landowners leave that state’s program. The weak exit cost for leaving Pennsylvania’s Act 319, on the other hand, actually cheats taxpayers twice. Not only is just a small fraction of lost tax revenue recovered, after the land is residentially developed, taxes invariably rise as increased population density necessitates more expensive services.
Residentially developing Crebilly would be not be financially beneficial to taxing authorities. While revenue would increase from new taxpayers, there are associated costs attached to that new revenue. According to separate well-regarded national studies by the American Farmland Trust, the Keystone Conservation Trust, the Trust for Public Land, and the DVRPC, each dollar of revenue raised from a new residential development actually costs a taxing authority between $1.03 and $2. Taxpayers, therefore, face higher tax bills when residential developers come to town by adding to the housing density of the municipality, SD, or county. Simply, increased density triggers a need for more expensive services.
If tax rates weren’t hitched to density, the 80,000 people living in the eight square miles of Upper Darby Township would have some of the lowest taxes in PA. Instead, they have some of the highest. Conversely, lower density equals lower taxes: compare Pocopson Township to Upper Darby, Chester County to Delaware County, New Hampshire to New Jersey. In the vast majority of cases, lower density equals lower taxes. West Chester Area School District understands this well which is why the school board passed a resolution last year demanding $645,000 per year from Toll for five years to pay for the large influx of new students to the district.
Some apologists for this taxpayer swindle will argue that we got open space for all the years the Robinsons were in the program, but that ignores the undeniable fact that Act 319 was intended to encourage conservation. Passed shortly after the Environmental Rights Amendment was added to our state constitution in 1971, it reflected the new concern for the environment that infused the early 70s. The PA Legislature certainly did not intend this program to be used by large landowners as a temporary tax haven while waiting for the right moment to cash in. But that’s what it’s become and area Pennsylvania Legislators have refused to do anything about it.
So how much have the Robinsons saved through Act 319 since the 70s on all the land they’ve owned and sold off along the 202 corridor and on both sides of 926? Likely millions. That’s money we had to pay instead. If Toll ever defiles Crebilly and its history with a colony of plastic houses, it’s money we’ll never get back. Added to the trauma of losing Crebilly is the insult of higher taxes that would be needed to pay for new services. But this doesn’t have to be. The Robinsons could, if the opportunity presents itself, show their appreciation to taxpayer largesse and sell Crebilly Farm at a conservation price to a consortium so that all future generations could enjoy it as a county park and a hallowed sanctuary of open space to honor the first American heroes.