Agnes Irwin School

Civil Discourse Between Agnes Irwin School Supporters and Easttown Residents . . . Township Supervisors Listen and the Vote Goes in Favor of the Community Voice

Civil Discourse is the formal exchange of reasoned views as to which of several alternative courses of action should be taken to solve a societal problem. It is intended to involve all citizens in the making of the decision, persuade others (through valid information and logic), and clarify what course of action would be most effective in solving the societal problem.

Last night the auditorium of Beaumont Elementary School was standing room only for Easttown Township’s special meeting . . . by my calculations, 250 Easttown residents and Agnes Irwin School (AIS) supporters packed in to the room.  After brief remarks from the township supervisors, there was a 20-minute overview of the revised Agnes Irwin School’s proposed playing field plans for the Hawkins Farm.  Agnes Irwin head of school, Dr. Mary  Seppala  spoke about the school and the students, followed by AIS attorney Ross Weiss who explained the contents of the revised playing field plans.  Mr. Weiss presented AIS’s new proposed plan; attempting to answer many of the previous concerns of the Hawkins Farm neighbors and other Easttown residents. 

A cornerstone of the new proposal was a ‘give-back’ of 58 acres (of the 108 acres) to Easttown.  Other new plan components included the creation of $500K fund for the township, whose yearly interest was intended for maintenance of the 58 acres;  complete public use of playing fields and tennis courts and a walking trail throughout the property with exercise stations.  Mr. Weiss patiently promoted the merits of this new plan and his hope that the supervisors would allow the plan to move to the planning commission.

The supervisors asked Mr. Weiss several general questions and then opened the discussion to the residents for their comments, questions and remarks.  The next two hours of this special meeting were remarkable.  One after another of the residents spoke with passion and conviction on the proposed playing fields,  Although the majority who spoke were in opposition of the proposed playing fields, there was a minority of Easttown residents who spoke in favor of the proposed plans; many of these supporters with daughters at  AIS. The residents frequently clarified their remarks, explaining that the issue was not about AIS.  Rather the issue was about changing zoning ordinances to allow a multi-sports complex construction in a residential district.  Their concerns remained unchanged as from previous meetings – traffic, safety issues, noise, associated expenses to the township and the potential lowering of property values.

Following the resident’s comments, the supervisors agreed to make a decision on proposed playing field plans.  The supervisors had three choices; (1) to remain silent and do nothing; (2) vote against AIS proposed plan or (3) vote to move the AIS proposal on to township Planning Commission and Chester County Planning Commission.  The supervisors asked for a 5-minute break to deliberate and then with a few remarks, once again in a unanimous vote, made the decision to vote against the proposed plan.  In their remarks, several supervisors cited receiving 328 emails and letters from residents and all but 10 were opposing the proposed plan.

Although I was pleased for the many residents who had passionately fought against the playing fields, I received an unexpected bonus from attending this lengthy meeting.  I left the meeting with a sense that both sides had presented their cases with civility and respect for the other side and that I had witnessed local government at its best.

Thomas Jefferson and the other founders of the American Republic, considered political discourse to be the heart of democracy. Jefferson noted, “Differences of opinion lead to inquiry, and inquiry to truth.” According to Webster’s dictionary, the concept discourse has two major meanings: (a) formal communication of thoughts about a serious subject through words (spoken or written) and (b) rationality or the ability to reason.

Civil discourse is our ability to have conversation about topics about which we disagree, and our ability to listen to each others’ perspectives. Political discourse is a method of decision-making in a democracy; last night’s special meeting represented local government and civil discourse at its best!  I applaud the Agnes Irwin School supporters and the Easttown residents for their thoughtful civil discourse, but above all, Easttown Township’s elected officials receive a standing ovation from my vantage point! 

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Fireworks May Be Coming Early to Easttown Township . . . the Battle Lines are Drawn for Agnes Irwin vs. the Hawkins Property Neighbors . . . Tuesday, June 29, 8 PM, Beaumont Elementary School

With the unanimous vote of defeat by the supervisors, I assumed that AIS would look elsewhere for their playing fields.  The acquisition of more land for playing fields has apparently been part of the school’s long-range plan.  While AIS has explored other properties in the area, they have not proven sufficient for the school’s needs. We now understand that the girl’s school from Rosemont does not take ‘no’ lightly and has orchestrated a campaign to change the minds of Easttown’s supervisors and residents. 

Taking a different approach in selling this project to the community, AIS has now developed a new proposal scheduled for presentation at a special meeting on Tuesday, June 28, 8 PM at Beaumont Elementary School.  In the new proposal, AIS is offering to donate 50 acres (of 108 acres) to the township as open space. In addition, the new plan includes a reduction from the school’s original proposal by one playing field and two tennis courts and a reduction to the proposed paved parking spaces. Mounting a major PR campaign designed to promote the playing fields in Berwyn, the school has marketed the land development project to current AIS families, alumnae and friends through letters and a newly designed, “Hawkins Property Information Center” website.

Rather than sitting on the sidelines, the neighbors to the proposed playing fields are organizing their own campaign to fight back.  In a show of solidarity, the Hawkins property neighbors have created their own website, Protect Easttown: Working to Keep Easttown Residential Saying NO to Zoning Changes.  The neighbors who oppose the proposed playing fields want to clarify that the issue is not about AIS but rather the issue is about changing the zoning ordinances. A zoning change would permit AIS’s planned multi-sports complex in a residential district, forever altering the character and integrity of Easttown Township.

I have had several emails from Easttown residents in regards to the Hawkins property but none of the communication supports the proposed AIS plan.  One individual who wrote to me explained that they purchased their home next to the Hawkins property because they were told the Hawkins farm property would not be developed; as it was protected under a conservation easement. Since purchasing their home, the proposed playing fields project has developed and these owners are now faced with the possibility of living next door to a sports complex rather than the quiet, peaceful protected property that they thought would be their neighbor.

With the battle lines drawn for Tuesday’s special meeting, I decided to drive to Hawkins Farm today and see the location of the proposed playing fields.  I admit that looking at the acres of bucolic fields and mature landscaping; it was hard to visualize soccer and softball fields, a turf field, tennis courts, running track, gatehouse with restrooms and a parking lot.  As I stood in the shadows of Mrs. Hawkins historic stone house and barn, watching the ducks on the pond, I am challenged to believe that this proposed AIS plan would have met with her approval.

To the neighbors of the Hawkins Farm, you have my best wishes for Tuesday night. 

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Additional posts on Agnes Irwin School’s proposed playing fields in Easttown Township:

http://pattyebenson.org/2010/06/03/brandywine-conservancy-easement-on-hawkins-property-cannot-be-undone/

http://pattyebenson.org/2010/06/02/agnes-irwin-school-purchase-of-berwyn-property-for-playing-fields-remains-an-open-issue/

http://pattyebenson.org/2010/03/08/what-does-a-sprawling-berwyn-estate-a-hollywood-related-socialite-a-private-girls-school-and-a-planning-commission-have-in-common/

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What Does a Sprawling Berwyn Estate, a Hollywood-related Socialite, a Private Girls School and a Planning Commission Have in Common?

March is National Women’s History Month.  There is a story this week in the local news that connects a large sprawling Berwyn estate, a Hollywood related socialite, a private girl’s school and the planning commission of Easttown Township.

Mrs. Alexandra Mellon Grange Hawkins lived on her 106-acre Blackburn Farm in Berwyn until her passing in 2008.  Mrs. Hawkins, graduate of Bryn Mawr College, was the granddaughter of Mr. James Ross Mellon, the second son of Mr. Thomas Mellon (1813-1908) a well respected judge, attorney and entrepreneur, mostly known as the founder of Mellon Bank.  Mrs. Hawkins was also married to Kathryn Hepburn’s cousin and considered to be a bit of a Hollywood insider socialite.

Today, I drove to Sugartown Road to find Blackburn Farm, the home of Alexandra Mellon Grange Hawkins.  For years, Blackburn Farm served as the staging area for Devon Horse Show.  The main house is visible down a long winding driveway and seemed very quiet and lonely against the bleak landscape. I am sure that this wonderful historic property was beautiful and grand but today it just looked silent and empty.  There are stories surrounding Mrs. Hawkins, who died in her 90’s, that her home was discreetly but elegantly furnished and decorated with good but not splashy artworks, and was protected by an elaborate security system. 

Once a year, Mrs. Hawkins celebrated her birthday wearing elaborate ballroom gowns and choosing from a collection of fine platinum, gold, emerald and diamond jewelry.  According to one source, Mrs. Hawkins actually used a Cartier 14K gold check book holder!  She invited friends and representatives from the many charities she supported to celebrate her birthday with a private dinner-dance held under tents on the grounds in the summertime.  A very private person, the house was generally off limits, and few people were ever invited inside.  At her yearly birthday party, Mrs. Hawkins displayed some of her eccentricities including the addition of Hollywood sparkles to her hair that would be custom-matched to her fingernail polish.  A personal requirement, Mrs. Hawkins would not permit  male guests to leave her birthday party until they each shared a dance her . . . very interesting.  (I know Mrs. Hawkins was married twice, but I found no references to either of her husbands or of any children.)

Blackburn Farm was very important to Alexandra Hawkins and she had taken special measures to protect the property.  In fact, sections of the property were protected by both the Brandywine Conservancy and the Open Space Conservancy. Many of Mrs. Hawkins Berwyn neighbors knew of the trust-protected property, so it came as a bit of a surprise when they learned that the Agnes Irwin School had signed an agreement of sale for Blackburn Farm on January 27.  

The private girls’ school in Rosemont has two fields on its campus and needed additional athletic space. This week representatives from Irwins took their case to the Easttown Township Planning Commission.  As it was explained to the standing-room crowd, the agreement is to simply use the land for athletic fields with no intention to move the school or any of its buildings to Berwyn.  There would be two turf fields and two grass fields, as well as a track and two softball fields.  The project will cost millions of dollars and along with the playing field will including a 100-space parking lot, a new 5,000 sq ft. facility to house bathrooms, storage space a snack bar.  Mrs. Hawkins home, barn and garage will remain intact, with no stated usage.

Although the Irwin representative explained that the project will meet all necessary storm water issues and preserve the natural environment of the property, the audience members were not convinced.  Citing traffic, safety, environment issues as well as privacy issues to nearby neighbors, almost all audience members who spoke were opposed to the plan.  The project is in its very early planning stages and the school wants to do everything in its power to make sure that all resident concerns are heard and considered, and that everyone is happy

There were several people in the audience who had known Mrs. Hawkins and suggested that this would not have been what she would have wanted for Blackburn Farm.  Mrs. Hawkins spent much of her later years involved in her charity works and it is thought that she would want the property preserved and not developed.

Because there is easement protection on the property; if the project is to move forward there will need to be a change to the existing ordinance.  The ordinance would need to be amended to allow sports fields to be placed on 50 acres or more in both of the neighboring districts.  The school believes an amendment is required because athletic fields are not currently allowed in these districts and they are asking that part to be changed.

Although anxious to move ahead with the plan, for now Agnes Irwin will have to wait.  The Planning Commission in Easttown is an advisory committee and makes recommendations to the Board of Supervisors.  Because this type of development is not currently permitted it is doubtful that it can be passed, that is until there is a change to the zoning ordinance.  The Planning Commissioners will probably need to take more time to review the plans before making a decision.

With the discussion on the last post about the various houses that have been purchased by the school district, I did start thinking. . . wonder why the school district never considered Alexandra Hawkins estate as a purchase?  I’m guessing that the final sale of the property is based on approval to change the ordinance; otherwise there would be not reason for Irwins to own the property.  Easttown Township has a Historic Commission, I wonder if they have weighed in on the project? Wonder how the same scenerio would play out in Tredyffrin Township?  Wonder what our Planning Commissioners would recommend? 

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