Landscapes3 opens window to county's potential future
● By Richard Gaw
From gathering up post-it notes stuck to maps to attending private and public meetings with stakeholders and citizens, the Chester County Planning Commission has spent the last several years creating a suggested blueprint for the future of the county, created largely on the backs of ideas and suggestions from those who live there.
It has culminated in a three-tier comprehensive plan, known in proper order as Landscapes, Landscapes2 and now, Landscapes3.
On April 10, before about 100 lawmakers and residents at the New Garden Township Building, the Commission rolled out its goals and objectives for Landscapes3, its current broad sweep perspective that attempts to balance growth, preservation and quality of life in Chester County over the next 30 years.
During a one-hour presentation that followed an open house, the Commission's Executive Director Brian O'Leary shared the results of more than a year of public input that helped solidify the plan, which included 6,000 public opinion survey responses and recommendations.
The key issue of main concern to stakeholders, Leary said, is solving the equation of balancing growth while at the same time preserving open space and proper stewardship of the county's natural landscape.
Other high priorities expressed by residents have been in seeking ways to stimulate healthy lifestyles; create a balanced measure of growth; create initiatives that help preserve a “sense of place,” and find methods of building a vibrant economy.
Getting the county to that happy place in the next 30 years will run headlong into natural progress, Leary said. The county is projected to have a 30 percent population growth rate by 2045, which includes 146,000 more residents, that equates to 55,000 more homes, 87,000 more jobs and a rise in the growth of the senior populations.
In order to best achieve the goals set forth by residents, Landscapes3 has established six goal areas:
Preserve: To sustain and cultivate a commitment to saving the county's natural features, such as open space, stream valleys, farmland and steep slopes.
Protect: Determining proper stewardship and the best methods of protecting the land, by strengthening regulations and cooperating with conservation groups.
Appreciate: Honoring the county's cultural and historic resources and its heritage, and determining its role in the county's future.
Live: Exploring methods to continue the smart development and viability of healthy communities, creating opportunities for affordable housing and creating diverse neighborhoods.
Prosper: Finding ways to strengthen the economy and adapting it to changing market conditions, through public and private partnerships.
Connect: Determining the county's path forward on transportation, infrastructure and utilities.
Getting it all to fit properly, O'Leary said, will be about wedging this vision into the multi-layered overlay of Chester County that includes preserved land; growth areas like urban, suburban and rural centers; and rural resource areas, such as woodlands, open space and agricultural farmland.
A looming challenge to the plan, O'Leary said, will be eliciting the support of those agencies in the county who put progress over conservation. While townships and municipalities incorporate preserving open space as top priority in their comprehensive plans, and work with groups like Natural Lands Trust and the Land Conservancy for Southern Chester County to purchase land for preservation and public trails, there is an equal push by real estate developers to make investments in a county rich in opportunity and projected growth.
County Commissioner Michelle Kichline said that the consistent tenor of the Planning Commission is to stress to both municipalities and developers that properties located in communities with open space are more valuable.
“That's part of our educational process,” Kichline said. “The county doesn't have the power of zoning. The municipalities do, and on the county level, we feel the need to educate both on how they can address their zoning codes, and educate them about the importance and value of open space.
“Open space is not just beautiful. It has a difference in worth.”
Keeping over-development in check will be about proper municipal planning across townships and municipalities, O'Leary said. A good example, he said, is being seen in the joint economic development plan between Kennett Square Borough and Kennett Township, which addresses zoning codes related to development.
“I think that's absolutely going to be a piece that we'll have to build into [our] recommendations,” O'Leary said. “Once the zoning is in place, it becomes very hard for a community to turn down or change a development proposal. We really push a vision partnership program that helps communities [create] really good comprehensive plans that follow zoning laws, that will help them accomplish what they want.”
O'Leary said that while development in rural communities is likely to continue into the future, it will be tempered by a goal to target future development in the county in urban and suburban centers, with a particular concentration on creating affordable housing options.
“There will be some development in those [rural] areas, and sometimes, it's going to be a property that we all look at and say, 'Boy, its a shame to see that property go,' but when you're a developing area, what you want to do is to keep growth close to urban centers. We feel that while there is going to be some development in areas that we don't want to see developed, let's not leapfrog [development] all across the entire landscape.”
Another issue that faces Chester County is how it will create incentives for the Millennial Generation who grew up in Chester County, and wish to remain. It may require some out-of-the-box solutions, O'Leary said, such as encouraging municipalities to allow older residents to rent out a portion of their homes to younger residents, which will then create additional incomes for older residents.
The Landscapes3 plan will also focus some of its priorities on stimulating growth in its de-industrialized urban centers. The county has created a $2.25 million yearly community revitalization program that funnels money into the development of infrastructure projects that provide an economic boost to cities like Phoenxiville and Coatesville.
The Commission's immediate game plan for Landscapes3 is to continue engaging the public at similar meetings, scheduled for May 1 at Penn State Great Valley; May 16 at the Chester County Public Safety Training Campus; and in the fall in West Chester, at a site to be determined.
The Commission will continue to take recommendations, hold additional meetings and is scheduled to adopt the Landscapes3 plan by the end of 2018.
“Once it is adopted, then it becomes an all-out implementation to put the recommendations into action, in order to get them accomplished over the next few years,” Leary said.
“These accomplishments have been achieved through leadership and partnership, qualities that will continue to be necessary for our communities to thrive,” Kichline said. “The tasks before us now are to continue with preservation and growth, in light of the opportunities and challenges that face Chester County. To do this, we are seeking to engage all of our communities in ways that embrace place and enhance choices.”
To learn more about the Landscapes3 plan, visit the Chester County Planning Commission at www.chescoplanning.org.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.