Op/Ed: Rapid industrialization is ruining the Chester County rural character

By Kaitlyn Toth, Special to The Times

Kaitlyn Toth

Growing up, a core memory of mine was walking to elementary school with my siblings and my mom by my side. The luscious green grass, tall corn stalks, and smell of the fresh morning air, it was the highlight of my day. My childhood is flooded with memories of running through open fields, exploring forests, and riding my bike down trail paths. However, that is not the case for my two younger sisters growing up in Chester County today.

The land is accumulating more housing units, business complexes, and schools each year. Their childhood is plagued with industrialization and urbanization. Every nook and cranny of the county is slowly being converted into a man-made mess – overcrowding the schools, damaging the open farmland, and disrupting the ebb and flow of families in Chester County.

With an ever-growing population, the county has approved more housing units over the last four years compared to its neighboring Philadelphia counties.i This influx of housing units opposes the locals’ notion to preserve green space and stop the infectious spread of development. Residents are concerned with the exacerbated traffic as a byproduct of increased housing units.

Furthermore, a swelling population has led to a higher demand for housing, causing property values to surge in price as the median sales price for new homes increased by $53,876 from 2021 to 2022.ii

As the housing market grows, the school systems must accommodate for a perpetually increasing student body. School infrastructure is expanded to avoid strain on the school capacity, such as the extension of the Downingtown STEM Academy to make space for 200 more students. Additionally, the student to teacher ratio is has steadily climbed from 14:1 in 2010 to 17:1 today, alongside these changes to rural Chester County.iii Impinging on student’s academic performance and mental health, this overcrowding reduces individualized attention, hinders personalized support, and contributes to heightened stress levels.

Well known for its agricultural industry, the county is being taxed with changes in land use, impacting productive farmland and natural habitats. For instance, residents banded together to testify before the Pennsylvania Local Government Committee, protesting the construction of a distribution center with four warehouses measuring almost 2 million square feet.iv This distribution center is set to be built on the county’s farmland on Lionville Station Farm. The backlash is grounded in concerns for environmental impacts, like noise, water, and air pollution, for neighboring townships. Along with the pollution, this ongoing construction disrupts the native wildlife and plant species and the local hydrology patterns by altering water runoff.

Pennsylvania Representative, Danielle Friel Otten, praised those battling against this commercial development at the hearing:

“None of us wanted to spend our time fighting against these multi-billion-dollar developers to save the quality of life we have invested in for our families. And I don’t think we put enough value on those who give of their time, talent and treasure to protect our little sliver of southeastern Pennsylvania.”v

Converting the farmland into an industrial space alters the local land use patterns and diverts from the available agricultural land. According to the EPA, emissions in Chester County in 2020 amounted to 284,141 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, but in 2022 the Chester County greenhouse emissions rose to 300,467 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.vi The rise in greenhouse gas emissions demonstrates the diminishing rural character as industrial development intensifies, reflecting a shift away from agrarian landscapes towards a more urban landscape.

Moreover, construction – such as this Audubon distribution center project – can bring economic benefits, such as job creation; however, residents are also troubled that this will attract an industry that will deflect clientele from local businesses. The economic landscape could shift from Chester County’s well-known agriculture to industrial and logistic activity. This industrialization impacts local farmers and the county’s ability to sustain environmentally friendly agriculture, contributing to the loss of rural livelihoods. For instance, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) Partnership Program that requires farmers to stop farming on any land that is conserved via those funds.vii These restrictions are decreasing the amount of land that farmers can lease, contributing to the loss of rural livelihoods.viii With farmland disappearing, construction booming, and strict agricultural restrictions, the natural contours of the rural landscape have been altered and the traditional character disturbed.

Overall, the impact of the expansion of schools, growth of the housing market, and industrialization on the rural character of Chester County is a multifaceted matter with both positive and negative transformations. While construction may bring employment opportunities, the projects pose challenges, such as loss of agricultural land. The shift of agricultural land into industrial space has adverse environmental implications as well, harming local ecosystems by noise, water, and air pollution. Achieving a balance between modern development and the preservation of rural character requires community engagement and thoughtful, sustainable planning to reserve cultural richness and environmental integrity amidst this ever-changing world.

i Blumgart, Jake. “Chester County Has the Most New Housing in Philly’s Pennsylvania Suburbs.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 8 Aug. 2023, www.inquirer.com/real- estate/commercial/chester-county-housing-crebilly-farms-townhomes-20230808.html#loaded. ii Chester County Planning Commission, and Chester County Department of Assessment. “Housing Report 2022.” Chester County Planning Commision, 2022, www.chescoplanning.org/Housing/HousingReport-22.cfm.

iii Institute of Education Sciences at National Center for Education Statistics. “Student Teacher

Ratio.” Open Data Network, 2014, www.opendatanetwork.com/entity/0500000US42029/Chester_County_PA/education.classroom_ statistics.student-teacher-ratio?ref=entity-question&year=2014.

iv Rettew, Bill. “Warehouse Project Opposed in Downingtown Community.” Daily Local News, Daily Local News, 31 Aug. 2023, www.dailylocal.com/2023/08/31/downingtown-schools- choose-not-to-stop-warehouse-project/?clearUserState=true.

v For MediaNews Group. “Uwchlan Township Residents Testify before Pa.. House Local Government Committee.” Daily Local News, Daily Local News, 8 Sept. 2023, www.dailylocal.com/2023/09/08/uwchlan-township-residents-testify-before-pa-house-local- government- committee/#amp_tf=From%20%251%24s&aoh=16942096296205&csi=0&referrer=https%3A% 2F%2Fwww.google.com&ampshare=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.dailylocal.com%2F2023%2F09% 2F08%2Fuwchlan-township-residents-testify-before-pa-house-local-government-committee%2F.

vi EPA. “Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Large Facilities.” EPA Facility Level Information on Greenhouse Gases Tool, Environmental Protection Agency, 18 Aug. 2023, ghgdata.epa.gov/ghgp/main.do#/listFacility/?q=&st=PA&fc=42029&bs=&et=&fid=&sf=110011 00&lowE=- 20000&highE=23000000&g1=1&g2=1&g3=1&g4=1&g5=1&g6=0&g7=1&g8=1&g9=1&g10=

1&g11=1&g12=1&s1=1&s2=1&s3=1&s4=1&s5=1&s6=1&s7=1&s8=1&s9=1&s10=1&s201=1 &s202=1&s203=1&s204=1&s301=1&s302=1&s303=1&s304=1&s305=1&s306=1&s307=1&s4 01=1&s402=1&s403=1&s404=1&s405=1&s601=1&s602=1&s701=1&s702=1&s703=1&s704=





vii Chester County Parks and Preservation. “Farmland Preservation.” Chester County, PA – Official Website, www.chesco.org/4618/Farmland- Preservation#:~:text=The%20agricultural%20conservation%20easement%20runs,used%20for% 20agricultural%20purposes%20only. Accessed 9 Dec. 2023.

viii Rellahan, Michael P. “Disappearing Chester County Farmland: A Battle between Farms and Open Space Grants?” Daily Local News, 10 Apr. 2023, www.dailylocal.com/2023/04/01/disappearing-chester-county-farmland-a-battle-between-farms- and-open-space-grants/.

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