Chester County government has a long history of protecting the environment and its many natural areas. County departments and agencies have been at the forefront of resource protection, some of them long predating the original Earth Day in 1970. Since 1989, the Commissioners of Chester County have created and funded one of the most comprehensive and sustained efforts in the country to promote a high quality of life through critical environmental protection efforts.
Controlling sprawl development is one of the most important ways the county and municipalities can protect the environment. In fact, since 1995, sprawl development has been significantly reduced, with 10,000 fewer acres developed than expected, despite much more population growth than predicted. The Chester County Planning Commission, established 70 years ago in 1950, has taken the lead on these efforts and has a well-established mission of sound land use planning and natural resource protection. With the adoption of Landscapes in 1996, the goals of reducing sprawling development, protecting the environment, and preserving open space were officially established as adopted county policy. Landscapes3, the third iteration of the county’s comprehensive plan, continues this strong resource protection tradition.
ENVIRONMENTAL PROGRAMS & RESOURCES
The County’s Vision Partnership Program was established soon after the adoption of Landscapes to support municipalities in implementing Landscapes’ policies. Since 1998, the county has provided over 300 Vision Partnership grants supporting local and regional planning. Much of that planning, in the form of comprehensive plans and ordinance updates, plays a significant role in protecting natural resources through policies and regulations. Even before the Vision Partnership Program was created, over 65 county grants were provided to municipalities in the early 1990’s for open space, recreation and environmental resources plans as a prerequisite for receiving county open space preservation funding.
Protecting water quality is another key environmental task for the county. The Chester County Water Resources Authority (CCWRA), established by the County Commissioners in 1961, leads these efforts, helping to reduce flooding and improve water quality. In 2002, the CCRWA completed Watersheds, the county’s first integrated water resources plan. This plan was amended and re-adopted in 2013 to serve as the county-wide stormwater plan providing policy support for local stormwater ordinances protecting stream water quality. The CCWRA is currently in the process of updating the Watersheds plan and facilitating the on-going implementation of vital water protection policies at the local and county level.
The Chester County Conservation District protects water quality and one of the county’s most unique assets, our incredibly rich and productive soils. Since its creation in 1947, the Chester County Conservation District has worked with landowners and land users to conserve the natural resources of the county. Today, the District assists builders, contractors, developers, farmers, and local citizens in developing and implementing conservation programs, while also seeking ways to restore our streambanks and riparian corridors.
Groundwater is another important environmental asset of the county. Unlike many other parts of the country and world, Chester County is blessed with an abundant amount of groundwater supplies. The Chester County Health Department (CCHD), established in 1968 and one of six county health departments in Pennsylvania, takes the lead on these efforts. Their Environmental Health division protects the county’s groundwater resources through its inspection and permitting program for wells and on-lot sewage systems. Chester County is also mandated to develop, implement, and monitor formal plans for managing municipal waste to help ensure that solid waste is disposed of in a long-term environmentally safe manner. Over the past five years, between 60% and 70% of all waste materials originating from Chester County have been recycled.
OPEN SPACE PRESERVATION
One of the best ways to protect land is to leave it undeveloped, and Chester County has made impressive strides in this area, permanently protecting 29.3% of the county’s area, which is a huge increase from the 8% of county area that was protected in 1995. The 142,200 acres of protected land in Chester County represent a larger area than the whole cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh combined. These efforts, led by the Parks and Open Space Preservation Department, are designed to preserve the most productive non-irrigated agricultural soils in the world, provide local and county parks and recreational opportunities, and preserve significant natural areas. In addition, since 1995, the county has added over 25 miles of regional trails that are enjoyed by half a million walkers, bikers and other users each year.
Taking advantage of existing infrastructure, buildings, and development (instead of having new development on greenfield land) is another way to help the environment. The county’s Community Revitalization Program, led by the Department of Community Development, does this by investing in infrastructure in our urban centers. Since this program began, the county’s urban centers have seen over a 12% increase in population, and over a 15% increase in the assessed value of properties.
CLIMATE ACTION EFFORTS
Through its Facilities Department, the county has also worked diligently to reduce the greenhouse gas impacts of its own facilities and staff. Over the past four years, the county has annually saved over 2 million kilowatt hours of electricity, 8 thousand BTUs of natural gas, and 18 million gallons of water through its energy savings initiatives – leading to a reduction of over 2,000 tons of CO2 emissions per year. This is the equivalent of the total yearly energy use of 212 homes.
In 2010, Chester County developed it first Climate Action Plan titled the Chester County Greenhouse Gas Reduction (GHGR) Report, and is now well on its way to updating that plan to create a new climate action plan for Chester County.
The county has made great strides in protecting the environment by preserving open space, limiting sprawl, and protecting water quality. But the job is not done. In addition to these efforts, there’s much more work to do to limit greenhouse gas emissions, provide alternative transportation modes, and create green infrastructure. Chester County is up to the challenge and looks forward to celebrating Earth Day for another 50 years!