The Battle for Crebilly Farm
Westtown’s Mindy Worth Rhodes leads the charge to save this local treasure.
Mindy Worth Rhodes at Crebilly Farm//Photos by Tessa Marie Images
Revolutionary times call for revolutionary measures. Taking to her horse like Paul Revere, Mindy Worth Rhodes has been leading the opposition to a proposed Toll Brothers development that would reduce Crebilly Farm to a memory in Westtown Township.
Now a resident of the historic village of Trimbleville in West Bradford Township, Rhodes grew up in Westtown. A lifelong equestrian, she rode through Crebilly’s pristine 330 acres as a girl.
Last fall, word spread of Toll Brothers’ agreement of sale on the tract, which is owned by the Robinson family that co-founded Acme Markets. An unlikely revolutionary, Rhodes printed flyers and twice saddled up White Spike, setting out even before the developer had applied for a conditional-use permit to build a maximum of 397 houses.
“I’ve been called worse (than Paul Revere),” Rhodes says. “I thought, what we need to do is create a massive public outcry—and so what could I do?I could hand out flyers and walk the neighborhood, then I thought, ‘Hell, I’m not walking when I can ride my horse.’”
Her initiative grew into a group effort, Crebilly Farm Friends, but it isn’t the only grassroots opponent of the development. There’s also Neighbors for Crebilly, organized by local realtor Elizabeth Roche and businessman Vince Moro. Others like Kathleen Brady Shea of Chadds Ford Live news website and blogger Carla Zambelli of Chester County Ramblings raised awareness.
And leaders in nearby neighborhood developments are now helping Rhodes. “I thought of it as, ‘I’m just going to do this one thing and then be done,’ but that was months ago, then it was one more thing and one more meeting,” Rhodes says.
Bounded by Routes 926 and 202 and South New Street and West Pleasant Grove Road, Crebilly Farm is no stranger to the threat of development. Proposals ranging from an assisted living community that tanked with the economy in 2007 to an upscale three-unit apartment complex have come and gone.
Unlike the latter, which required a zoning change and was withdrawn in 2015, the Toll Brothers project involves a use that’s already permitted by the township. “Those earlier deals look like perfection compared to what we’re dealing with now,” says Rhodes, who believes the township has been negligent in updating its comprehensive plan, making it difficult for the supervisors to deny the developer’s application.
Lifelong equestrian Mindy Worth Rhodes is leading the charge to save Crebilly Farm.
The first of two layouts includes 317 new two-story homes, a combination of 200 single-family and 117 carriage-style dwellings, all with basements. The second rendering features a 347-unit mix of 143 single-family and 204 carriage-style homes—and there’s room for more. Both plans show access from Route 926 and West Pleasant Grove Road, but the second version includes a connector road within the development that would parallel Route 202. Sixty percent of the land would stay open.
Per policy, the Montgomery County company declines comment on approvals in progress outside of public meetings. In one of four open meetings with the township’s planning commission, a Toll Brothers representative said it would save the two existing homes along New Street and the stone residence at the corner of Routes 202 and 926, as well as the barn, horse stable and springhouse. The barn would likely become a clubhouse or community center for the homeowners’ association.
Township manager Robert Pingar says the municipality and the developer are bound by current ordinance and that property owners have the right to sell their land, especially in such a desirable region. The land is zoned for minimum two-acre lots, and between six and eight conditional-use meetings with the board of supervisors could play out for over a year. “We’re in the early stages of a long, fluid and dynamic process,” Pingar says. “We support the ordinance and are proud of the ordinance because it allows for flexible development, which allows for a minimum of 60-percent open space. If the project goes into the building phase, I’m confident it will be the best it can possibly be.”
While there are no other Toll Brothers developments in Westtown Township—and little development in recent years—numerous large-scale subdivisions have popped up in the past 20-30 years. “We’re largely built out, but I don’t know of any on the size or scale of this tract, so the questions remain: Why do this, and why now?” Pingar says.
If fully built out, the development is forecasted to grow the township’s residential count by 10 percent. Most of the concerns are typical: poor views from adjacent properties, school-district strain, and more traffic. But there’s a unique worry: The parcel’s proximity to the historic Brandywine Battlefield. This has led those like Rhodes, who has lived in California and Maui, to wonder if area residents are so spoiled with history that they’re blind to threats. “I think we’re not paying attention, but now this is a wake-up call,” she says. “In the beginning, I couldn’t fathom that the land would be completely destroyed, but now I think about the history. I live in an old home, and I have the duty to protect it. How does Toll get so much damn power? Why do we, the people, keep giving them the power? I’m not naïve to think we’ll stop it, but we’re not going to make it easy for them.”
Rhodes hadn’t attended a township meeting before the cause, but she knows the peaks and valleys of Crebilly Farm, which has been Robinson-owned for three generations. Growing up, Mrs. Robinson Sr. had horses, too, and carriages. Rhodes fondly remembers a couple of conversations with her, which included permission to ride on the property if she simply closed the gates and was responsible. “Now, the younger generation is ready to sell,” Rhodes says.
Beyond reading statements at meetings and appearing on radio shows, Rhodes has written an open letter to the Robinsons, pleading with the family, which remains mum. “This journey has taken on a life of its own, and, quite frankly, I’d like to exit stage left. But morally, I feel like I can’t,” she says.
Via the internet, others near and far have chimed in. Linda Skiff of Newcastle, Maine, grew up next to Crebilly and has told her kids stories of Mrs. Robinson Sr. riding out with her carriage and how the fox hunt came through the farm. West Chester’s Debbie Pettit lived on Route 926, close to where she says there’s now a bald-eagle nest. Coatesville’s Jayne Shea, whose ancestors were among Chester County’s original settlers, wrote of her dairy-farming family selling off massive tracts, one of which is today’s Eagleview Corporate Center in Exton. She called the decision “our family’s great regret passed through the generations.”
“When I think of Crebilly Farm turning into a wasteland of Toll houses, I literally get sick to my stomach,” says Rhodes. “I guess I need to know that, 10 years from now, no matter what happens, I tried my very best to prevent a disaster.”