Fifteen years ago, the 83-acre Kirkwood Preserve was established thanks to a public/private partnership that included Willistown Conservation Trust, Willistown Township, the Chester County Department of Open Space, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. On the misty autumn afternoon of October 26, 2020, we celebrated that momentous accomplishment with the dedication of a new sign and a small gathering of the visionary people who made it all possible.
The story begins over 20 years ago when Willistown residents voted to approve the Open Space Referendum of 1999 and agreed to allow the Township to levy an additional 1/8% of Earned Income Tax to raise funds for the protection of land for recreation and preservation of the Township’s natural, agricultural, scenic, and historic resources. Willistown’s Open Space Fund was established with these taxpayer revenues, and it was a significant contribution from the Township along with matching funds from Chester County, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and generous private donors that enabled Willistown Conservation Trust to acquire the 83-acre Kirkwood Preserve. The preserve was part of a much larger conservation effort that included the protection of Kirkwood Farm, a magnificent 324-acre property in the heart of the Trust’s program area. Also known as the “Hardie Scott property”, Kirkwood Farm has always been considered the very essence of the Willistown countryside and defines the unique natural, scenic, and rural character of our area.
Bordering the Crum Creek and known for beautiful views from Grubbs Mill Road of its large grassland areas, rolling hills, mature woodlands, and wetlands along the creek, Kirkwood Preserve contains some of the most environmentally sensitive lands in the Township. Willistown Conservation Trust manages the stewardship of the preserve, providing a protected habitat for nesting and foraging grassland birds such as the declining Eastern Meadowlark and the Bobolink. Native tree plantings in the riparian areas and proper landscape management practices promote the health of the Crum Creek, which is designated as an Exceptional Value Stream. Most importantly, Kirkwood is open to the public every day from sunrise to sunset, allowing Township residents and others to enjoy its scenic natural beauty. The acquisition of Kirkwood Preserve was a true public/private partnership and the direct result of Willistown residents choosing to see their tax dollars used for open space preservation.
Fast-forward to 2020, when a global pandemic has altered how we interact as humans and with nature. Kirkwood Preserve is a place where Willistown residents can exercise, reflect, and safely interact outdoors in a time where indoor spaces are limited for such activities. The physical and mental health benefits of being outside are well documented, and the availability of publicly-accessible open space is as important now as it has ever been.
The gathering at Kirkwood on October 26 was a celebration of a successful partnership that we hope to strengthen and use again to protect hundreds of more acres into the future. Recalling the details of a complex and intricate process that ultimately resulted in the preservation of hundreds of acres of land, Willistown Conservation Trust’s Executive Director Bonnie Van Alen expressed her gratitude to the many players who made it happen. “The Willistown Conservation Trust is exceedingly grateful to the conservation partners who have so magnanimously supported this acquisition. First and foremost, our heartfelt thanks go to Willistown Township which made a very generous commitment from its Open Space Fund toward the acquisition.”
Also present at the gathering were current Township Supervisors William Shoemaker and Bob Lange, who, along with former Supervisor David Rawson, provided political leadership for the project at the time. Each recalled their memories of the preserve’s acquisition, and all three hailed Willistown Conservation Trust’s successful efforts protecting open space in the Township.
Mary Hundt was working for Willistown Conservation Trust in the late 1990s and was instrumental in garnering public support for the Open Space Referendum, eventually seeing it result in the acquisition of Kirkwood. Now, as Director of Parks and Recreation for Willistown Township, she is currently involved in the process of updating the Township’s Comprehensive Plan. This will be the Township’s road map for managing growth and development over the next 10 years. It will also guide the planning of important public amenities, like open space. In recalling Township residents’ passion for saving open space when the referendum was approved, Mary explained that the same sentiment is strong in the community today. “The Open Space Referendum of 1999 asking residents if they would agree to an additional tax to protect natural, scenic, and recreational resources passed with 80% of the vote, and the 2020 Comprehensive Plan Survey reveals that this strong preservation mindset in Willistown still stands today. A total of 97% of Willistowners find the protection of open space, the environment, and scenic landscapes as important efforts with 80% defining them as “very important”. The preservation of trails, passive recreation parkland, and historic buildings are important to 94% of Willistowners. These statistics reinforce the overarching sentiment and desire of this community to protect such special places as Kirkwood Preserve.”