The canopy of red oaks, sugar maples and tulip trees provided a respite from the 94-degree heat on a July visit to the Boy Scout Tract. The cooling provided by the trees was a reminder of the importance of preserving tree canopy as global warming raises the temperatures in Philadelphia. The calls of blue jays, Carolina wrens, eastern towhees and red-eyed vireos provided a soundtrack along deer trails through the woods.
A plan by the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education to explore selling this 24-acre wooded parcel to developers has activated local open space activists and environmentalists who are preparing to fight to keep the sprawl that has consumed so much of the region from devouring the Boy Scout Tract as well.
The tract sits across Port Royal Avenue from the 340 acres of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education’s grounds and across Eva Street from the Upper Roxborough Reservoir. Green Tree Run, one of Philadelphia’s few first-order streams (meaning it has no tributaries — rare in a city that has turned so many of its small waterways into storm sewers), begins its journey to the Schuylkill River in a steep ravine at the Boy Scout Tract, which earned its name by hosting camping Boy Scout troops from the 1950s to the ’80s. The Schuylkill Center acquired the land in 1987 through the will of Eleanor Houston Smith, whose family had earlier donated the land that in 1965 became the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center, later renamed the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.
A walk along Port Royal Avenue in Upper Roxborough offers a tour of land preservation victories and losses, with the Boy Scout Tract, fate uncertain, in the middle. The Upper Roxborough Reservoir, targeted for development in the early 2000s, is now part of Philadelphia’s park system. Neighbors stroll on a path circling its basin, and its slopes bristle with newly planted trees.
Below the wooded Boy Scout Tract, the dusty outline of a small development called Port Royal Reserve provides a nightmare preview of what could happen if builders get their hands on the land, according to Jennie Love, owner of Love ’n Fresh Flowers. The sign at the 10-acre site announces six houses starting at $1,500,000. The developers cleared the trees on the site, graded the driveway, and, for the five years since then, development has mostly been paused, according to Love.
Stormwater runs off the property and down Port Royal Avenue, washing soil into the road and cutting a gully into the Schuylkill Center’s grounds near its wildlife clinic. “They have to bring in front-end loaders to clear the road when it rains,” Love says. She pointed out a pile of soil where the builders had laid a foundation for a model house and then torn it out. Love says clearing forest at what is now the Boy Scout Tract would only amplify the runoff problem while any planned houses are under construction, especially if the project hit similar delays.
The Schuylkill Center’s plans became public when, on March 9, an anonymous email address, “firstname.lastname@example.org,” sent an email with the subject “Schuylkill Center Land Sale” to all staff at the organization with attached internal documents detailing plans to sell the Boy Scout Tract.
It is rarely good PR when a conservation group sells land to a developer.”
— Mike Weilbacher, Schuylkill Center executive director in a leaked memo
This was not the first time the Schuylkill Center had tried to sell the Boy Scout Tract. In 2004 a plan to sell to a developer who proposed to build more than 80 homes sparked a firestorm of community outrage and opposition. Mike Weilbacher, the Schuylkill Center’s executive director, described the reaction in an April 2021 memo (part of the leak) to the board: “The proposal … was somehow discovered by the neighborhood, which went predictably ballistic, as it is rarely good PR when a conservation group sells land to a developer. There was even picketing at our front gate.” The Schuylkill Center dropped the plans and the executive director at the time resigned.
Weilbacher drafted the April 2021 memo to the board to formally notify them that Daniel F. Gordon, a donor to the Schuylkill Center, had approached him with an offer to buy the Boy Scout Tract. Gordon sought to build two houses, one for his daughter and another for his wife and himself, as well as a barn to house his daughter’s horses.
According to the memo, Gordon had lost out on bidding for a 10-acre plot of land on Port Royal Avenue being sold by Jamie Wyper, a Roxborough open space activist and president of the Residents of Shawmont Valley Association, along with two other families who had acquired the initially forested parcel when it came on the market. They had hoped that they could limit the extent of development on the plot by choosing the ultimate developer. (This plan ultimately failed, according to Wyper. That 10-acre plot is now the aforementioned Port Royal Reserve.) Gordon then approached Weilbacher about the Boy Scout Tract, offering to buy it for about $1.5 million and including a conservation easement to limit development beyond the two houses and barn.
Conservation easements are a popular open space preservation tool for private lands. A restriction placed on the property’s deed limits development, so that even future owners are restricted in what they can build. Sometimes a third party pays for the easement, compensating the land owner for limiting development and the resulting loss in the land’s resale value. In other cases the land owner can use the value of the easement as a tax deduction.
In 2014 and 2015 the Schuylkill Center had applied to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for $1 million in funding to place a conservation easement on the Boy Scout Tract. They teamed up with Natural Lands, an organization that preserves open space in the Philadelphia area, often using conservation easements. The state turned them down both times, since $1 million could preserve much more land in rural areas where land is cheaper than in Philadelphia.
Weilbacher consulted with the board about Gordon’s offer, and as Weilbacher has said in meetings since, the board decided to convene a task force to more thoroughly consider if and how to sell the Boy Scout Tract. That task force decided to solicit additional offers to give the organization more options.
The leaked news of the possible land sale sparked opposition from much of the Schuylkill Center’s staff. Leadership held Zoom meetings on March 10 and 11 to present the plans to the staff and hear their concerns. Grid obtained audio from the two meetings.
Based on the recordings, staff members spoke up to address several points, including how the development of the Boy Scout Tract, however restricted by a conservation easement, would destroy wildlife habitat, for example that of the American toads whose spring migration is celebrated and protected by the Schuylkill Center’s Toad Detour program.
“We had an all-staff meeting, and I clearly disapproved of it,” said Eduardo Dueñas. Dueñas worked at the Schuylkill Center as the manager of school programs. He left recently after six years with the organization. He got his start there volunteering for Toad Detour. “That’s a way we connect the community. Based on that I would not agree on selling.”
Other staff were surprised to learn that the tract was even owned by the Schuylkill Center and said they would have offered programming ideas if given the opportunity. One staff person spoke up to ask who the board members involved were, since they had never met any board members in their time working at the center. The physical offices of the center leadership sit downstairs from the programming spaces at the organization’s main building. Programming staff complained of an upstairs/downstairs gulf between staff who worked with the public and leadership unaware of working conditions.
Several people expressed frustration with the lack of transparency about the process, which had been underway for a year, but which the staff only learned about through the email leak. Some staff at the meetings spoke up to say they were concerned that the sale violated the organization’s conservation mission. At the end of one of the calls, two staff members spoke up with concerns that the sale would damage the center’s reputation, which, they said, was already suffering among local birders and other naturalists.
The proposed sale of the Boy Scout Tract added to a list of staff complaints, such as low pay, that have fueled turmoil at the center. According to current and former staff at the center, about 20 people (at least a third of the workforce) left between October 2021 and June 2022, with each departure adding to the workload of those remaining.
At an April 28 evening Zoom discussion about forest restoration, Schuylkill Center staff essentially hijacked the meeting with questions about the sale, including about how alternatives to the sale might promote local land sovereignty, according to two attendees who spoke anonymously with Grid. The meeting, part of an educational series called Thursday Night L!ve, ended early, and was not posted to the center’s YouTube channel.
The March 9 all-staff email leak also reached Wyper and Rich Giordano, president of the Upper Roxborough Civic Association.
“When we got the anonymous email I reached out to some of the other civic [association] people, and I had a conversation with Mike Weilbacher, who largely confirmed overall what was in the email and said they were still working on whether they were going to issue an RFP [Request for Proposals],” Giordano says. After the conversation, the civic association leaders decided to give the Schuylkill Center the benefit of the doubt and wait for more information before alerting their members, many of whom had taken part in the resistance to the 2004 attempted sale of the land.
After three months they stopped waiting. In early June they convened a joint, closed meeting of the two civic associations to discuss the possibility of the land sale. After that initial meeting they invited the Schuylkill Center leadership to present the plans to issue the RFP, which resulted in a June 30 Zoom meeting at which Weilbacher and Schuylkill Center board of trustees members Joanne Dahme and John Carpenter presented the plans.
Weilbacher noted that the Boy Scout Tract was donated to the center with more flexibility than the original, core property of the center. He put the proposed sale into the context of past Schuylkill Center land sales, including the sale of what is now Manatawna Farms to the City in the 1980s. In 2006 the center sold a five-and-half-acre section of the Boy Scout Tract along Eva Street to a church.
The RFP includes language from Houston Smith’s will that makes clear the center is free to sell it. The land was “to be retained by the nature center, in whole or in part, for its stated purposes as its Trustees see fit, keeping in mind, but not being bound by my desire, that as much open space as feasible be preserved in the City of Philadelphia, but without restriction on the right of the said Trustees to sell or otherwise completely dispose of the premises … as they shall determine to be in the best interest of the Nature Center.”
Board members Carpenter and Dahme said that the Schuylkill Center would only consider proposals that included strong stormwater management plans. Half of the property is too steep to build on without a zoning variance, and the Schuylkill Center representatives said that they would require developers to include a conservation easement to prevent any future owners from seeking a variance and building on those hillsides.
Members of the civic associations submitted their questions (along with several comments opposing the sale) through the meeting’s chat.
Tom Landsmann, the president of the Roxborough Manayunk Conservancy, which works to conserve land in those neighborhoods, wrote, “What is the max number you would considers [sic].” Later in the chat Landsmann wrote, “I’d like to hear a rough conceptual number of how many houses that SCEE would consider.”
The Schuylkill Center representatives said that the organization had not made decisions about a revenue target or how many houses it would allow, though it would not consider proposals with the maximum allowable density.
They explained that they planned to use the revenue from the sale to fund capital expenses, for example improvements to the wildlife clinic and repairs to the visitor center.
Several attendees questioned why the Schuylkill Center would sell the land rather than use it for programming. Weilbacher said that the center had faced challenges using all of its core 340 acres for programming, and that in 50 years the Boy Scout Tract had not been used.
In actual fact the land is used. By wildlife.”
— Jamie Wyper, president of the Residents of Shawmont Valley Association
Wyper, president of the Residents of Shawmont Valley Association, responded; “In actual fact the land is used. By wildlife.”
In the chat, Michelle Havens, who had until March worked at the Schuylkill Center as office manager and gift shop manager, asked, “When was the last time you solicited feedback or recommendations from the Staff of the Schuylkill Center pertaining to the property and its usage for programs, since they would be the first and best resource for such questions?”
Weilbacher said that staff often volunteered programming ideas for the Schuylkill Center overall, but to his knowledge had never volunteered programming ideas for the tract.
Several comments asked for an in-person meeting in addition to the Zoom Q&A. Weilbacher and the civic association leaders said that there would be in-person meetings in the future to discuss the proposal, though they have yet to set a date.
Havens left the Schuylkill Center in the middle of March after working there for six and a half years. She questioned the need for the funds, given that the center’s endowment sits at about $5 million, according to their most recent annual IRS 990 report.
Both Wyper and Giordano made similar points in conversations with Grid, noting that plenty of organizations raise money through capital campaigns without resorting to selling off land.
“What we find disappointing is they went for the easy, low-hanging fruit here. The one way that is a way that violates their mission and reputation,” Wyper says.
“They’ve sold land several times before and wound up not necessarily in a better position than before they sold it,” Giordano says. “What you should do is really a development project, real fundraising rather than take a huge asset you have that’s important in its own right and sell it.”
Havens’ daughter, Kacey Plunkett, worked at the center from 2018 to May 2022 in a variety of education positions as she attended Chestnut Hill College, graduating in 2021 with a degree in environmental science. “It was so amazing to find a job that resonated with what I wanted to do with my degree, but everything started to fall apart,” she said. “At the beginning of 2022 it was so overwhelming because we had lost so many teachers.” Along with the low pay and the mounting workload, Plunkett cited poor leadership at the center, including from a board that had little contact with the staff of the organization, as a reason for her departure, which she documented in an email sent to all staff and to the board on May 20.
Selling land is not how you protect nature.”
— Kacey Plunkett, former Schuylkill Center employee
The Schuylkill Center declared 2022 to be its year of restoration, with a focus on habitat restoration at the center grounds, which Plunkett says clashes with the plans to sell the Boy Scout Tract. “It’s the year of restoration and they’re trying to sell a plot of land,” she says. “If I had known about the land, I would have taken preschoolers there … If we had known we would have been doing programs over there, showing people how we protect the land, how we protect nature. Selling land is not how you protect nature.”
Havens echoes Plunkett’s point about staff not being consulted for programming ideas at the Boy Scout Tract. “At no time was anything sent out to the employees asking for program proposals or usage proposals for that land,” Havens says.
Sandi Vincenti, who was the center’s director of early childhood education from 2017 to 2020, recalled discussions about using the Boy Scout Tract for camping at leadership meetings. “At a few senior staff meetings it was an agenda item.” She says they discussed using the site for camping by children enrolled in the center’s programs.
“Mike Weilbacher is a bald-faced liar,” says Andrew Kirkpatrick, who worked as the land stewardship manager for the center from 2016 to 2019. Like Vincenti, he told Grid that he had seen suggestions to use the tract as camping space in an old master plan, and that he had repeated to the center’s program managers the idea that the tract be used as a camping site for outside groups. “We had looked at that spot because it was out of the way, so groups could camp there and not be in the way of activity at the main site.” Kirkpatrick thinks the center’s leadership avoided programming on the tract to keep it open for a future sale. “They always kept that parcel separate so they could sell it off.”
Some Schuylkill Center staff support the sale. Sam Bucciarelli, the center’s land stewardship coordinator, says, “The Schuylkill Center currently does not have the resources to properly care for the parcel, and I am in support of a conservation-minded sale including a conservation easement.”
During the June 30 civic association call the center representatives said that the organization is not committed to selling the Boy Scout Tract and could very well decide in the end that no offer is worth it. Giordano suspects, however, that the money will be hard to turn down once they are confronted with concrete offers. “My concern is when you put something out into the world like this, stuff comes back to you that becomes tantalizing. It has a big dollar amount attached to it, and you are induced to do something you might not have done before you had that boulder rolling down the hill.”
Weilbacher declined to be interviewed for this piece, directing questions to Amy Krauss, the center’s director of communications. Grid asked why the center hasn’t set a target for the sale price or limits on the development they would approve. Krauss responded by email: “The Center’s Board of Trustees will evaluate the proposals based on multiple criteria: price offered to the Center; percentage of the Tract to be conserved; how the proposal addresses environmental concerns including, but not limited to, stormwater, soil disturbance and tree removal; suitability to the neighborhood; the developer’s track record and credibility; and any additional criteria determined by the trustees.”
Much of the discussion at the civic association meeting revolved around what the development of the Boy Scout Tract would mean for overall open space preservation in the neighborhood. The Schuylkill Center staff repeatedly assured the attendees that City water and sewer service would not be extended down Port Royal Avenue. Currently the houses on that hillside draw their water from wells and dispose of sewage through septic systems. These systems limit housing density, so the concern is that extended water and sewer lines would open up the rest of the neighborhood to denser development.
While this could be seen as a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) response by people privileged to own homes surrounded by open land, Giordano frames it as a defense of what in Philadelphia is an endangered landscape. One hundred years ago much of the city was still rural, particularly in the Northeast and Northwest. Today all those fields, forests and pastures have been developed. “Port Royal Avenue is literally a survivor of 19th-century agricultural Philadelphia,” he says.
“I think it’s hard for people to appreciate,” says Giordano, who, along with Wyper, led efforts to preserve the Upper Roxborough Reservoir and convert it to public park space. “We do tours at the reservoir. When I stand at the entrance I point at the Schuylkill Center and Manatawna Farms and down Shawmont Valley to say the amount of green is amazing to be inside the sixth largest city in the United States. It’s not little chunks. It’s almost continuous. This is important for the quality of life, for wildlife habitat.”
“In 2002 we had this area, this neighborhood, established as a historic district, the Upper Roxborough Historic District,” Wyper says. “It encompasses 1,500 acres of largely open space. It extends into Whitemarsh Township. It includes Manatawna Farms. That doesn’t give us much protection, but it gives us an identity.”
The Schuylkill Center released its Request for Proposals on July 11, with submissions due by September 23. The Schuylkill Center is a private organization contemplating a sale that wouldn’t require a zoning variance, which gives the public little leverage over the outcome. Nonetheless, the organization “depends on donations and grants, and their public face should be important to them,” Giordano says. “It’s a public face dependent on people who take these issues to heart in a serious way and wouldn’t look kindly on an organization that they think is betraying them.”
Giordano says he hopes the dispute doesn’t escalate as it did in 2004. “[It] was awful for them. It was awful for us, too,” he says. “Right from the beginning, my goal is let’s not go that route again… I hope at some point we have an offramp. I hope it doesn’t degenerate into some kind of bitterness.”
Opposition to the possible sale of the tract has manifested in a website (savetheboyscouttract.com), a Facebook group and an Instagram account (@savetheboyscouttractscee). Neighbors have begun putting up yard signs reading “No Land Sale! Schuylkill Center Must Save Land.”
“When I heard about the possible sale of the [tract], it felt like a violation of the community’s faith in the Schuylkill Center. Environmental centers at their very core are meant to protect the environment, not aid in the sale of it to developers,” says Stephanie Hammerman, who started the social media accounts along with other advocates. “The people involved in these groups are local community members and are all huge advocates of the Schuylkill Center and the environment, but are deeply concerned about the current direction it’s going in. They use and care for the space regularly and want it to remain in its current state where wildlife and human life can continue to enjoy it.”
Jennie Love farms flowers on four-and-a-half acres of what was once part of a farm that Wyper and other neighbors successfully preserved as open space. “We were able to put 21 acres into conservation easements,” Wyper says. “It’s a remarkable little agrarian setting.”
Love, though, is concerned that conservation easements might not be strong enough to protect the Boy Scout Tract once the property is sold by the Schuylkill Center, which, as a nonprofit organization, is not subject to local property taxes, to a private owner, who is. “I know the economic pressures that will come down on the owners of that land,” she says. She thinks a wealthy owner could clear more land than is permitted by an easement and choose to fight it out in court. Even if they lose the suit, the damage will be done. Love’s land is also protected by a conservation easement, but the City initially assessed the land’s value at what it would be worth without an easement. Love says that she had to fight to have her taxes reduced to reflect the value of the land minus the easement. “The point is once the Boy Scout Tract comes out from a nonprofit entity, I don’t care who says they’re putting it under conservation easements. I can say from experience it will be a nonstop battle from there on out to safeguard it.”
Love pointed out that the Boy Scout Tract’s location, directly across Port Royal from the core grounds of the Schuylkill Center and across Eva from the Upper Roxborough Reservoir, situates it well for public use. It is easy to imagine a trail running through it, knitting it together with those other publicly-accessible green spaces and inviting neighbors in.
“We need more of this space,” she says. “Why not keep it for citizens to use rather than putting it into development? There’s so much value to this land, value to wildlife, value to the community. This is just lazy leadership.”