Residents and developers battle to a draw in Bucks County

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When the bullet smashed through the living room window of Rick Patt’s Bucks County farmhouse, he was asleep. He didn’t hear the gunshot. He didn’t hear the glass break.

It wasn’t until early the next morning, soon after he woke up, that Patt noticed the small hole in the window surrounded by a web of cracks. He stared at it until the idea formed: “It looked like, you know, like a bullet hole.”

Patt called police, who later found a hole in the wooden mantle across his living room. The bullet was small caliber. Probably some kids out causing trouble or an errant shot from a hunter, an officer told Patt. Patt doubted it.

That was 2005. Three years earlier, Patt had moved from New York City into the 1790s-era stone house in rural Pennsylvania. The 52-year-old former hospital radiologist never had trouble with the locals. Truth is, he hadn’t met many of them.

For most of the time he lived in Tinicum, Patt kept to himself. He ran his pharmaceutical consulting business from the barn behind his house and entertained friends from the city for country weekends.

Not long before someone shot through his window, Patt learned that developers planned to cover a farm field less than a mile from his home with 192 apartments, a pool, and a community center. That proposal turned out to be only a small part of the plans developers have for Tinicum.

In all, developers filed plans for 460 garden apartments, 42 townhomes, 10 multiplex apartments, 137 single-family homes, and a waste water treatment plant that would discharge into nearby Tohickon Creek, a shale-bottomed waterway popular with hikers, fishers, and kayakers.

Patt decided to organize his neighbors and fight back.

As he stood staring at the bullet hole in his window, Patt worried that the shot was fired as a warning. Now three years later, as the land-use battle makes its way toward the courts, Patt is sure of it. Someone is trying to rattle his nerves.

The battle for Tinicum is a struggle that is being waged across the country. This at times bitter fight over land use centers on rural areas commutable distances from major cities, as residents of close-in suburbs look for larger homes in a country settings with good schools for their children.

Tinicum Township is 30 square miles of farmlands, fields, and forest, a 50-mile drive north from Philadelphia. It has 4,200 residents, three covered bridges, and a hilltop airport where vintage biplanes land.

Homes sit on acres of rolling land, hidden behind trees. There are no grocery stores in the township. The closest McDonald’s is in the next township, just near enough for wrappers tossed from car windows to gather in the ditches along state Route 611.

Tinicum is rural, but it’s not hick and it’s not cheap. The author James Michener was a longtime resident. John Heinz IV, the eccentric son of Teresa Heinz Kerry, has a home here.

The township has a rooted working class, but many of the more recent homeowners are suburban escapees and long-haul commuters who have moved into restored farm houses. Since 1999, only 98 new homes have been built in the township.

Without traffic — and there’s almost always traffic — Tinicum is an hour drive from Philadelphia and a little over 90 minutes from Manhattan. For many, the trees, the rolling hills, and the million-dollar vintage homes make the drive worth it.

“I couldn’t believe a place like this still existed,” said Pat Whitacre, aretired outdoor education teacher who moved to Tinicum in 1982 from Florham Park, a wealthy northern New Jersey borough. Whitacre and her husband restored their farmhouse and farm, installing modern plumbing and heating.

“Tinicum is an area that is a time warp,” she said. “While the rest of this whole area between Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston has been developing like crazy, somehow time passed by Tinicum.”

With the proposed development, time is set to catch up with the township. Detractors say the developments would cause a rapid increase of Tinicum’s current population and the demand on the limited water. They fear it will lead to wider roads, more traffic lights and power lines, new schools, and an influx of people whose cultural identities are often more in line with cities and suburbs.

Township manager Linda McNeill says Tinicum lacks the infrastructure to support the rapid expansion. Property taxes, which are relatively low compared to more developed areas of Bucks County, would rise, which McNeill says could drive out Tinicum’s working class and fixed-income retirees.

“Our school taxes would go up, and our municipal taxes would go up, too,” McNeill said. “We would have to hire additional police, do additional work on the roads, and hire additional employees in public works and in the municipal office. It really becomes this whole spiraling effect once you have that additional development.”

For decades, Tinicum’s rocky soil and notoriously dry wells helped it dodge the subdivisions, cul-de-sacs, and shopping strips that cover much of central Bucks County. But as buildable land to the south of Tinicum dwindled, the township’s undeveloped acreage became worth the costly lawsuits developers knew they would have to wage in order to build.

The township prepared for the fight. In 2000, Tinicum enacted zoning that allows developers to build on only 25 percent of a plot of land, even in commercial zones like the area along Route 611 where much of the current proposed development would be built.

The proposals violate Tinicum zoning, but developers have filed a “curative challenge,” a legal zoning challenge that is fought first before the township board of supervisors, but often ends only after battling it out in the courts.

“We think the zoning is unreasonable,” said Robert Sigety, president of The Piper Group, which, together with Main Street Development, another private Bucks County developer, is challenging the township. “They are trying to preserve agricultural soils, which is fine and understandable, but they shouldn’t be doing it in their higher-density zoning districts.”

Developers have long used curative challenges to pry open rural land in Pennsylvania. Buckingham Township to the south of Tinicum lost a series of zoning challenges in the late 1970s. The loss resulted in a 646-unit senior citizen development and six new subdivisions with 272 townhomes and 1,184 single family homes, many of them the large-footprint houses derisively termed McMansions.

The population of nearby Buckingham Township more than doubled to almost 19,000 since 1990. Henry Rowan a longtime resident and township supervisor, says the majority of the growth was a result of losing the curative challenges. Rowan says the growth changed the township’s culture. “The pressure for a Wal-Mart comes exclusively from people who just moved in and probably won’t be here in a couple of years,” he said.

The new residents also brought their children, which led to higher taxes for schools. Buckingham Township residents pay a 10.5 percent higher rate for schools-based property taxes than Tinicum residents.

Tinicum Township hasn’t faced the level of pressure developers brought to other areas of Bucks County, and so far it has fought off most challenges. In the early 1990s, the township sunk a proposal for a golf course and convention center as well as a subdivision by the luxury home builder Toll Brothers.

Each time, it drove developers away by proving their proposals would compromise the township’s wells.

Developers say this time they have the law on their side. “We are arguing that the township’s restriction to preserve agricultural soils at 75 percent in every zoning district is unreasonable, excessive, and invalid,” said Rob Gundlach, an attorney who represents the developers. “There is a balancing act when it comes to good planning, and they have tipped the scales.”

The township says it is trying to protect wells and open space, but Gundlach says what locals really want is to slam the door on Tinicum and keep others out. “They are camouflaging their real motivation, which is to stop and prevent any new development,” he said.

The courts will likely decide if Gundlach is correct. Pennsylvania courts have ruled that townships cannot isolate themselves and must accept a reasonable amount of development, said Witold Rybczynski, a professor of real estate at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “The question is, what is a reasonable amount?”

One afternoon in March, Patt and Whitacre took me on a tour of Tinicum, down roads that seemed custom-made for ratty 4-wheel-drive pickups. It had rained for days and Patt slowed his Mercedes-Benz sedan to a creep as he drove over water-filled ruts.

We passed two girls on horseback, and Whitacre pointed out a farm that sells cheese and another where the owners raise sheep. Both farms had been placed under conservation easements, an arrangement where landowners sell or donate their development rights to a conservancy in perpetuity, which keeps the land open.

To offset the lost value, landowners may be able to claim income tax deductions up to the potential value of their land before the easement minus the value after the easement. Since 1997, Bucks County voters have approved $146 million to purchase open space, often through conservation easements.

Further up the road, Patt drove to the top of a ridgeline overlooking a floodplain. If the proposed development goes through, builders will be free to dot the empty fields below with houses and apartments. I asked Patt and Whitacre if they would move if the homes are built.

“I don’t think I would choose to live in a place that allowed that to happen,” Patt told me later. “If I wanted to live in the suburbs, I could have moved to Jersey, a place with a Whole Foods and a train into the city.”

Soon after Patt learned about the development plans near his home, he and four other locals startedEco-Bucks, a nonprofit advocacy group that has grown to several hundred members. At the first fundraiser, members raised $24,000, said group treasurer Nick Bewsey. Since then, the group raised $15,000 more and received pledges of more than $25,000 for its legal effort.

A majority of donations are under $100, and Patt stresses that “It’s not five deep pockets that are funding this.” But the deep pockets of Tinicum Township are also paying their share, making the group a formidable counterweight to development interests.

Patt says the group is not against all development in Tinicum, but that it must be sustainable growth.

Eco-Bucks hired a Bucks County attorney to represent the group in township hearings. It also plans to pay for national experts to testify during the curative challenge. Patt says they are sending a message to developers. “We want to draw a definitive line in the sand and say it’s going to be a lot cheaper if you go somewhere else,” he said.

Developers rarely show up for public hearings at the Tinicum Township Hall. (“I’m too well to attend,” joked Wally Smerconish, owner of the Main Street Group, which has plans for 460 apartment units on two plots of land in the township.) Attorney Gundlach has become their public face.

“He would develop his kid’s sandbox if he thought he could put a couple of condos on it,” Patt said of the attorney, reflecting the bitterness surrounding the battle.

One evening in March, Patt and around 20 other members waited outside the hall for Gundlach with signs blazed with “Stop the Sprawl,” and “Sewage Plants Steal Water.”

At around 7:30 p.m., Gundlach arrived in a BMW with a personalized license plate that read: ZONING. Lugging an armful of banker’s boxes, he ignored the chanting protesters and ducked into the building.

No one — neither the citizens nor the developers — expects the township to rule against its own zoning rules. The real battle will begin if developers choose to appeal the township’s ruling to the courts. If they do, it could be years before a winner and a loser is named.

Not everyone in Bucks County is against the development. For some, it’s a money-making opportunity. Daniel J. Carr, a gruff 69-year-old who has owned land in Tinicum since the 1970s, sold the parcel near Patt’s farm where Main Street Development plans to build apartments.

In the county, Carr is notorious for his past involvement with illegal tire dumps. In 1996, arsonists set fire to used tires stashed under Interstate 95 in Philadelphia at a business Carr was running. The fire caused millions in damages to the road, and Carr was found guilty of risking a catastrophe and other charges. While serving his prison term, he pleaded guilty in 1999 to having illegally operated another tire dump, in Richland Township in Bucks County.

Carr’s land sale is contingent on township building approval. He’s not concerned about the deal falling through if the township blocks the plans. Open land is money in the bank, Carr said. “It’s not eating nothing. I’ll get twice or three times more for it when another person comes along.”

Carr scoffs at the notion that deep-pocketed people in town might run developers off. “They might think they can stop progress but they can’t,” Carr said. “When the stuff is taken to local courts, the man in the black robe will rule. If the developer doesn’t like the rule, he’ll take it to another man in a black robe. They will move higher and higher. They got money to fight.”

When commuters and retirees move in next to lifelong farmers, there is bound to be conflict, says Eugenie Ladner Birch, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of City and Regional Planning. The new rural dwellers may value open farmland, but sometimes the farmers who own it decide they are better off selling, Birch said. And when farmers die, their families, who often live elsewhere, sometimes want the money developers will pay for the land.

“This is normal human behavior. You can’t fault people on that,” Birch said.

In Tinicum, many people do find fault with that. In 2005, Penrose Hallowell, a retired farmer and former Pennsylvania agriculture secretary who is now a real estate agent, optioned seven acres of his land, on which developers plan to build the wastewater treatment plant.

At the time of the sale, Hallowell served as the appointed chairman of the county’s Agricultural Land Preservation Board. After public outcry over the sale made newspapers in Philadelphia and Allentown, Hallowell stepped down as chairman, though he still serves on the board.

A lifelong resident of Bucks County, Hallowell says he doesn’t want to see Tinicum overdeveloped, but he says people need to understand that some development will happen. “It’s sort of strange that they move in here and they are opposed to anyone else doing it,” he said of the activists.

The battle for Tinicum won’t end anytime soon. There is too much money on both sides of the struggle. “It comes down to who can stick it out longer, who will get tired first,” Patt said. “We certainly are not going to blink.”

But even if the township and Eco-Bucks win, Bucks County is growing. As it fills, there is money to be made building and selling homes in Tinicum. The pressure will continue. Tempers will flare.

That fact has turned Rick Patt’s country life into something less than calming. “When I lived in New York, I never got a bullet hole in my window,” he said.

Patt never found out who fired that shot, but he thinks it’s someone who is angry about his role in Eco-Bucks. He says prank callers phone his house and badmouth the group. There have been other problems since the gun shot, problems Patt is reluctant to talk about.

Patt recently bought a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun and started shooting target practice behind the house — to improve his aim and to let anyone within earshot know he is armed.

“I’ve had enough of the harassment,” he said. “There are a lot of crazy people out there.”

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