PA fighting Chesco bridge’s national historic status

posted Mon, May 3, 2010

Philadelphia Inquirer, By Kathleen Brady Shea, Staff Writer

Only the setting of a 99-year-old one-lane bridge exudes serenity as a spirited fracas over its future moves from Chester County to Harrisburg to Washington.

The dispute, which began after the county announced plans in 2005 to demolish Chandler Mill Bridge in Kennett Township, is now centered in the nation's capital, where Pennsylvania is challenging the span's inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places — a designation announced in January and opposed by state officials.

In selecting the bridge for the register, federal officials cited its historic significance in local transportation and engineering. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, with input from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, countered that the bridge was common and insignificant.

"The federal government slapped them in the face," said Stephen Fromnick, director of Chester County's Department of Facilities Management.

He questioned how the designation occurred "against all logic" and the state's expertise, and he cautioned that it could open the door to similar, undeserved listings.

Fromnick said Chester County, which owns the bridge and has been unable to give it away, has safety concerns about the one-way span's two-way traffic, deteriorating condition, and eight-ton weight limit. It plans to replace it.

But area residents and preservationists say the stone and steel structure, which crosses the gently gurgling West Branch of the Red Clay Creek, deserves to be treated similarly to the 400 acres of land that surround it, which are protected from development.

"We have a study that shows rehab is possible," said Dee Durham, executive director of Safety, Agriculture, Villages and Environment Inc. (SAVE), one of the groups working to save the bridge. "We honestly believe there's a compromise and a solution that will make everyone happy, but [the county and PennDot] aren't willing to entertain that discussion."

Patrick Andrus, a historian with the National Register, said a petition to remove the bridge from the list was submitted by the Museum Commission at the end of March, accompanied by "hundreds of pages" of documentation.

Andrus described the request as unusual, since it occurred so quickly after the listing. However, he said a review was warranted whenever someone presented information that was not available during the initial analysis.

"We're always open to considering new information," he said. "In their opinion, this documentation demonstrates that the bridge does not meet the criteria."

The state's position angered Jane E. Dorchester, a historic preservation consultant who submitted the nomination for the Chandler Mill Bridge Consortium.

Dorchester pointed out that the Museum Commission experienced budget cuts so severe last fall that sites it once monitored, such as the Brandywine Battlefield, are now staffed by volunteers.

"Why are they bothering to spend taxpayers' money to get it delisted?" she asked. "Is this a good use of funds?"

Carol Lee, the state National Register and survey coordinator, said the outlay of time and money was minimal, since some independent historians who disagreed with the listing offered their feedback.

"From our point of view, this is not an eligible bridge," she said, declining to comment on the escalating tensions.

Asked why the commission would challenge a designation that becomes moot when the county razes the bridge, Lee said the commission's decisions are based on documentation, not plans for the property.

The county has 17 or 18 similar "through-truss" bridges, Fromnick said. The historic listing "with no justification" sets a dangerous precedent that would burden other projects across the state with unnecessary delays and costs, he said.

He said he believed preservationists planned to use the designation to exert public pressure in a futile effort to save the bridge. As a result, he said, groups such as the consortium and SAVE are the ones wasting taxpayer dollars.

Placement on the National Register means that the county will have to spend about $75,000 on hearings that will cause an eight-month delay — but no change — in the $1.5 million, two-lane replacement, Fromnick said.

Durham agreed that advocacy groups were using the National Register to try to save the bridge, but she said the county forced their hand by refusing to involve the public in the process.

"Assuming the bridge stays on the Register . . . the law requires them to take a step back and reexamine their position," she said. "For them to say the bridge is coming down no matter what, they've already reached their conclusion and the process is a sham."

Durham said the county's support of the state delisting effort is another example of its resistance to public comment.

"You save money and expedite projects" by working together, Durham said.

Andrus said the National Register must respond to the removal request within 45 days, which enables people to submit comments. He said a decision would occur by or before May 15.

In the meantime, drivers on winding Chandler Mill Road sometimes wait for oncoming traffic before entering the bridge.

Fromnick said when he visited the site, he had to put his vehicle into reverse because a car was coming in the opposite direction.

"This is 2010, and I'm backing up on a bridge," he said. "I'm sorry, I just don't get it."

Contact staff writer Kathleen Brady Shea at 610-696-3815 or kbrady@phillynews.com.

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