By Richard L. Gaw
If you count yourself among those in the Kennett Township citizenry who wanted the historic Chandler Mill Bridge to be rebuilt as a modern, two-way, two-lane bridge, it's not likely to happen.
At its June 4 work session, the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors voted 2 to 1 in favor of the township entering into discussions with Chester County to take over the ownership of the bridge, in order to prevent a two-lane, two-way vehicular structure – which the county is currently proposing – from being built. Those voting in favor of the amendment were board chairman Scudder Stevens and board member Dr. Richard Leff. Board member Robert Hammaker voted against the amendment.
With the bridge now expected to eventually be placed in the township's hands, the 2 to 1 decision opens up the likelihood that -- with concession for compromises -- the proposal offered to the supervisors by the Land Conservancy for Southern Chester County (TLC) on May 19, which served as the centerpiece of the June 4 meeting, will be pursued.
The proposal states that if the township would take over ownership of the bridge and convert it to a pedestrian-only structure, that the TLC would take over the ownership of the bridge after construction is completed; that it would assume responsibility for all liability insurance; that it would make the bridge a focal point in a new historic district known as the Chandler Mill Nature Preserve; and that it would purchase the former Walnut Hill Bed & Breakfast and its 2.5 acres and convert the home and property into an interpretive nature center. In addition, as part of the proposal, a local landowner would donate 50 acres of nearby land to the formation of the proposed entity, that will have connectivity to an additional 200 acres of trails and open space.
In a prepared statement, Stevens called the offer "exceedingly generous, because it provides an important piece of what will hopefully become a trail system that stretches from Kennett Square borough through the township and into Delaware."
However, he tempered his acceptance of the proposal by echoing his earlier stance on the bridge, in which he called for the construction of a one-lane vehicular bridge, primarily for safety reasons.
Stevens said a pedestrian-only bridge would be ill-equipped to handle emergency vehicle access in the event of a fire or medical issue. He supported his stand by referring to a motorcycle accident his son recently suffered at the corner of Marshall Bridge Road and Route 82.
"The seconds were minutes, and the minutes were hours, while my son was on the road and potentially in mortal risk," he said.
“When I took office, part of my oath was to protect the health and welfare of the residents of the township,” Stevens said. “I take that vow as seriously as any vow that I hold. I cannot allow a dangerous situation to exist when I know it is preventable. I do not want it to be on my watch that someone died because emergency services could not get there in time. That is not acceptable to me."
Stevens said that he has been inundated with correspondence from those on both sides of the bridge issue, including the opinions of a young boy in the audience. Stevens held up a hand-made card, which had been delivered to the township building by a young boy, requesting that the bridge be saved. "We are a family of five," the card read, "and we really love the bridge for riding bikes and walking and running. Thank you. Please the protect the Nature Preserve. Kyle, age 7."
In his statement, Leff said that a modern, two-lane bridge built by the county would add to the national debt and would significantly increase traffic, which would require the township to make upgrades to nearby Chandler Mill Road. Leff also opposed Stevens' opinion that the township should rehabilitate the bridge as a one-lane vehicular structure.
“The bridge was built in an era when Kennett Township had one thousand residents, when Chandler Mill Road was the route of choice and the flattest route into Kennett Square,” Leff said. “We now have motorized cars and trucks easily able to climb hills and take other routes. In short, Chandler Mill Road has long been obsolete, and in the past three years since its closing, people have easily adapted.”
The practical alternative, Leff said, would be for the township to build a one-lane, pedestrian-only bridge that would also be able to provide an adequate weight limit capacity for emergency vehicles such as police, ambulance and lightweight fire vehicles, to use.
"A rehabilitated pedestrian bridge, if it were to allow emergency vehicle access only, would be an improvement," Leff said. "If we can agree and the county agrees, it may qualify for federal highway trust fund money, be the lowest cost option available, and would not require huge investment from the township."
With the township having agreed to enter into discussions with the county, and the bridge anticipated to eventually be in the township's hands, the key question on the table is whether or not the supervisors will find a common ground -- one that will comply with TLC's wish to build a pedestrian-only bridge, and still be able to satisfy Stevens' wishes that the bridge be able to provide for emergency vehicle access.
Stevens said that "a reasonable, functional compromise can be carved out if all of us are willing to look at all sides of the picture. There are several viable approaches which will provide community safety, and not deprive the township of a unique natural oasis. We need to find one that we can all rally behind to get this situation resolved.
The issue is next expected to be discussed at the Board of Supervisors' meeting on June 18.