Battle of Brandywine Redux

A local landowner safeguards his farm—and history in the process.

On a picture-perfect October morning, Tom Spackman stands at the far edge of his Birmingham Township farm gazing out toward Brandywine Battlefield. Involving more than 26,000 troops, the largest military engagement of the Revolutionary War was staged on Sept. 11, 1777. It was a key British victory, and some of the bloodiest hand-to-hand combat unfolded on Spack-man’s property and four adjacent sites.

Gen. William Howe went on to capture Philadelphia, but he failed to destroy George Washington’s army and was unable to rally the residents to the British cause. “More than 3,000 troops were killed that afternoon,” says Spackman. “A great deal of the battle was fought with bayonets. It was terribly bloody. Generals Washington, Howe, Anthony Wayne and the Marquis de Lafayette commanded their troops on these lands. It was the only battle in the war where that happened.”

Back in the early 1990s, when he was a Birmingham Township supervisor, Spackman locked horns with government officials in his efforts to save the battlefield and surrounding farms from suburban sprawl. “I had to fight like the devil to get the township to protect these ancient woods,” says Spackman, gesturing toward a forest of majestic oaks. “If I had died and some developer had come and bought my place, they could’ve taken all those trees down. The federal government had zero interest in giving funds for preservation, yet tons of money goes to Civil War sites.”

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There are common graves for the soldiers on a slice of Spackman’s farm, on the battlefield land, and up at Birmingham Meeting House. “I’m the steward of all this,” Spackman says. “For me, that’s what it’s about. Hike into those trees and you’ll see an ancient riverbed and a limestone quarry that dates back to the 1600s.”

Encompassing about 10 square miles along the Brandywine River in Chester and Delaware counties, Brandywine Battlefield was declared a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. National Park Service in 1961. This designation is the highest level of national recognition awarded a historic resource in private ownership. While landmark status recognizes a site’s historical importance, it doesn’t prevent landowners from altering or developing their properties.

It’s a gorgeous setting, with wooded lanes, historic farmhouses and horses grazing in lush pastures. Fifteen years ago, a task force was formed to preserve the battlefield, focusing on a handful of remaining undeveloped properties where the heaviest action took place.

Known as the Meetinghouse Road Corridor, five historically significant properties comprising more than 450 acres were considered the most important for preservation. If you stepped into a time machine and dialed it back to 1777, you’d see that the lands have remained much as they were—rolling, open fields and dense, ancient woods.

In January 2001, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Brigham protected their 55 acres with a conservation easement. In December 2002, the Spackman Family Trust placed an easement on its 110 acres. In July 2003, Mr. and Mrs. William Wylie permanently protected their 11 acres with an easement. In December 2003, the Worth Family Trust granted an easement on 115 acres.

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The Odell property, known as the Skirmish Farm, was the last piece of the puzzle. It came under easement last June. Dubbed “the hole in the doughnut,” the Brandywine Conservancy purchased the site for $8 million and officially took title to 100 acres. They also secured an option to buy 13 acres, which includes the residence of Roberta Odell.

“With the incredible support of many foundations, individuals and government agencies, we have not only preserved open space, but the historical ground where patriots fought for American independence,” says George “Frolic” Weymouth, chairman of the Brandywine Conservancy Board of Trustees. “We may have lost the battle in 1777, but we won this war.”

Conservation easements are legal agreements that establish perpetual restrictions on the use and development of land, while keeping it under private ownership. Whether it’s incorporated into a broader land use plan or stands alone, the conservation easement is a powerful tool to preserve natural resources, family lands, farmland and other environmental assets.

Easements are also much more than a legal way to protect the land. In exchange for voluntarily surrendering certain rights to develop or alter property, landowners may receive favorable income, gift or estate tax benefits. The long-term responsibility for oversight and protection is shared with a respected institution whose proven commitment to conservation is consistent with the ideals of the landowner.

Pennsylvania leads the nation in farmland preservation, and Chester County ranks at the top of the state’s counties. In recent years, private monies from organizations like the Brandywine Conservancy and the Natural Land Trust have sparked greater participation by landowners.

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Land conservation efforts have been underway in the area outside of Malvern for more than 25 years. The initial organization, formed in 1979, was known as the Willistown Area Conservation Program and was a satellite program of the Brandywine Conservancy. Teaming with the community and local landowners, Willistown Conservation Trust (WCT) has protected many vulnerable farms and other ecologically important land areas. More than 6,000 acres have been preserved. Most of this land has been protected through the donation of conservation easements by more than 120 local landowners.

Earlier this year, WCT finalized the acquisition of two-thirds of the Hardy Scott Kirkwood Farm that resides near Goshen and Providence roads. Four buyers purchased two large tracts of 148 acres and 176 acres in the heart of Radnor hunt country. Three of the buyers have agreed to keep the land in use as equestrian sites. WCT also protected an 834-acre natural preserve crisscrossed with riding trails.

“The more land that’s come under land easements, the more we’re able to preserve our storied equine tradition,” says Bonnie Van Allen, president and executive director of WCT. “With so much land preserved, we’ve inadvertently created a market for these large properties.”

Chester County bought development rights on a 50-acre farm in West Fallowfield Township for $150,000—about half of what a developer would have paid Jessie and Martha Lair on the open market. “This was a hardworking farmer, not someone who has come from a wealthy family,” says Bill Gladden, director of Chester County’s open space and land preservation programs for the past dozen years. “They couldn’t afford to give away the farm, but they were in a financial position to preserve it. They were very committed and passionate about agriculture, and want to see the farm succeed in future generations.”

Gladden, who grew up in western Pennsylvania, started his career with the Nature Conservancy. He headed the Chester County Planning Commission before his work in land preservation. “When I first came here, I was struck by the commitment,” he says. “Long before the government programs were instituted, there was a culture of conservation.”

The easement programs pay the difference between a property’s value as a working farm and the land’s potential as a site for development. Accepting less than full development value allows a farm to be ranked higher on the county’s list of applicants and makes the farmer eligible for a federal tax break.

Gladden has spoken with the owners about easements on two other properties —totaling nearly 200 acres—in the Meeting House Corridor area. “You have to be an optimist if you’re in the preservation land business,” he says. “To wind up with a contiguous swath of land under easement and a trail that the public can walk around these historic lands, well, that certainly exceeded my early expectations.”

A total of $16 million was paid out from Birmingham Township, the county, the state, and federal funds, along with monies from foundations and individuals. “The county stepped forward with a $3.1 million commitment, then the other pieces came into place,” Gladden says.

Each easement project is unique. Landowners are afforded reasonable opportunities to utilize their land to make a profit.

Spackman’s 40-page easement document has provisions to build a historical museum, a country store, and an arts or music venue that are architecturally complimentary to the landscape, but not within view of the battlefield.

“It could be two or three generations away, but the landowner has these options,” says Spackman, who is also a real estate consultant. “The whole idea was to look to the future. There are provisions for windmills and solar panels, away from the battlefield area, if they become a major source of power.”

Spackman’s ancestors have lived in Chester County since 1740. In securing the easement on their 110-acre farm, his family agreed to 60 percent ($4.5 million) of the open market value.

When asked how his creative ideas went over with the Brandywine Conservancy, he responds with a screeching noise. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve accomplished over the years, but they didn’t want to hear it,” he says with a laugh. “[It] didn’t fit into their box, so we went to the Natural Land Trust. They weren’t working on emotion, and my family was very impressed with their open minds.”

Being a family trust, the easement contained a litany of issues that needed to be addressed. “Many of the ideas were complimentary to the cultural history we want to preserve, and some weren’t,” Gladden says. “The landowner is still governed by the township’s zoning ordinances.”

Gladden credits Spackman with laying much of the groundwork for the historic easements. “Tom’s line of work involves sales, but I think he’s very sincere in his passion,” Gladden says. “He was the glue that kept it together over the years. Tom kept moving it forward.”

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