It is challenging to recap a year like 2020, since it was such an unprecedented and challenging year. We are happy to report that the Planning Commission was able to pivot and quickly adapt by working remotely. Despite the difficulties of the year, we also continued to implement Landscpaes3 successfully, working with our partners and the public to keep Chester County a great place for our residents, businesses, and visitors. Here are a few highlights of our accomplishments in 2020, organized by the Landscapes vision and our six goals.
Landscapes Vision and Map Implementation
The most important element of Landscapes3 is the overall vision and the Landscapes map, since these provide general guidance on growth, preservation, and development design. Many of the Vision Partnership Program (VPP) projects completed in 2020 addressed recommendations in Landscapes3 and the Landscapes vision and map. Because municipalities had to close due to the pandemic, fewer projects were wrapped up in 2020 than in prior years, which means that 2021 should be a particularly eventful year.
- Parkesburg adopted a comprehensive plan and revitalization plan, prepared by staff at the Planning Commission, that prioritized revitalization, streetscaping, traffic calming, and community enhancements;
- Thornbury completed a revised zoning ordinance, prepared by staff at the Planning Commission, that preserves open space through cluster zoning, includes comprehensive natural features protection, and has extensive historic preservation standards, particularly for portions of the township within the Brandywine Battlefield area;
- Uwchlan finished a comprehensive plan and an official map that recognizes the township as a suburban center which will have significant additional growth that will require a robust road system, a good trail and sidewalk network, and protection for natural and historic resources;
- Valley Township adopted a comprehensive plan that prioritized visual and functional improvements along the Lincoln Highway corridor, reinvestment in neighborhoods, economic development, and expansion of the township’s park and trail system;
- Coatesville, South Coatesville, and Valley worked together to prepare the Coatesville Area Economic Development Study, which identifies market opportunities and proposes land use concepts for key sites in the three communities;
- West Caln Township adopted a comprehensive plan focused on maintaining the township’s rural character, including a focus on horses for transportation purposes.
The planning commission continued to provide expanded design input for development reviews, including sketch plans, development redesigns, and buildout illustrative drawings. As part of the commission’s design focus, staff completed a second design guide for each of the Landscapes map categories, which is the Suburban Center Design Guide. This document provides planning, zoning, and design guidance to suburban communities with mixed use centers.
In 2020, with the pandemic, we saw a few shifts in the character of our development proposals.
- For residential, there were around 2,700 units proposed, which is an increase of 500 units from the prior year and about average for the past ten years. The biggest increase was in single-family attached homes, but apartments remain our most popular housing type, with approximately 1,300 units proposed. Given the demand for housing in Chester County, we expect 2021 to be a big year for residential proposals.
- A little surprisingly, there was only a small dip in nonresidential square footage, with about 2.1 million square feet proposed, compared to 2.4 million the prior year. The nonresidential numbers were bolstered by industrial square footage, which was over 600,000 square feet in 2020. This was the second highest total over the past ten years, only exceeded by one year that featured a very large and very speculative proposal. We expect industrial square footage numbers to be even higher in 2021.
Preserve Goal Implementation
The preserve goal is focused on preservation of open space. In 2020, the Planning Commission tracked the county’s amount of permanent open space, identifying over 29 percent of the county, or 142,200 acres, as protected by the end of 2019. Since then, additional properties were preserved during 2020, including 91 acres added to the Crow’s Nest Preserve, and five farms, two of which were over 120 acres.
In support of greater open space preservation, county staff conducted an analysis of the open space tools used by the county’s 73 municipalities. Of these communities, 35 have special funding programs for open space preservation, 13 have transfer of development rights ordinances, 11 have true agricultural zoning, and many others have strong cluster ordinances.
Protect Goal Implementation
The protect goal is focused on natural resource protection and the environment. In 2020, the county hoped to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day with a series of events, but these were cancelled due to the pandemic; nevertheless, the Planning Commission did release a pamphlet to honor Earth Day titled 50 Ways Your Community Can Protect Our Planet, which shows how municipalities can rewild the suburbs, provide greening for everyone, support new transportation options, corral growth, and befriend the environment.
The county’s new Environmental and Energy Advisory Board began meeting in 2020, and this board started working immediately on a new Climate Action Plan for Chester County. A preliminary draft should be available in early 2021.
In preparation for a new municipal outreach program on natural resources, the Planning Commission completed a series of eTools focused on natural resource protection, including floodplain protection, riparian buffers, steep slope protection, wetlands protection, woodlands conservation, greenways, and conservation easements.
Appreciate Goal Implementation
To support historic preservation in 2020, commission staff:
- Shifted Town Tours and Village Walks to six virtual events, which were focused on a theme of art and architecture;
- Completed a planning study of the southern Brandywine Battlefield area, which focuses on the British approach to the battle, and presented these findings at a special Brandywine Task Force event;
- Worked with a historian to analyze the core battleground area of the Brandywine Battlefield; and
- Supported historic commissions through training, events, and technical support.
Live Goal Implementation
The live goal addresses a variety of housing, community facility, and park issues. In 2020, the Planning Commission continued to focus on A+ homes. During the year, the Planning Commission
- Worked with the Housing Choices Committee on housing issues;
- Analyzed the cost of building a new home;
- Prepared a report on housing for an aging population; and
- Tracked housing construction and costs in the annual housing report, which was moved to a new online format. In 2019, the median housing value in the county rose about 4.4% from 2019 to $355,000, and 1,409 units were built in 2019, a slight increase from 2018.
These housing efforts culminated in the A+ Homes forum, which consisted of two events held in mid-November.
Making sure all residents of Chester County are heard and counted, no matter what their background might be, is very important. To help with this, the Chester County Complete Count Committee encouraged residents to participate in the decennial census. In the end, 78.3% of the county’s households responded to the census, which is much higher than national or state response rates, and Chester County was the second highest county rate in the commonwealth, exceeding the response rate of 75.6% in 2010.
Prosper Goal Implementation
The prosper goal of economic development and urban revitalization became even more important in 2020 with the impact of the pandemic reverberating throughout the economy. To support economic development in 2020, the Planning Commission:
- Prepared an analysis of Chester County’s economy showing its diversity, strength in finance and technology, and exceptional workforce;
- Led the effort to provide best practices recommendations to businesses via the Restore Chester County website;
- Supported the Urban Center Forums, which focused on main street design and economic support;
- Prepared eTools describing the four cornerstones of a Main Street Program, which include organization, marketing, design, and economic development;
- Analyzed nonresidential construction and produced the first online nonresidential construction report for the county, which showed that approximately 1,000,000 square feet of building area was built in 2019; and
- Produced the annual farm guide and started a new agricultural consumer series, Farm and Table Tales.
Connect Goal Implementation
For the connect goal, which includes transportation and other infrastructure, the Planning Commission:
- Completed the Active Transportation Inventory, which examined municipal planning documents and ordinances for all 73 county municipalities to determine how well their regulations support walking, biking and public transportation usage;
- Held a transportation event in the fall which highlighted the Active Transportation Inventory;
- Analyzed Southern Chester County for a multi-modal trail and found there are lots of places that would benefit from improved bicycle and pedestrian networks; and
- Prepared an interactive map showing the status of the Circuit Trails in Chester County.
This year, the Planning Commission released its first report on Landscapes3 successes and metrics. Generally, we saw positive trends in 2019 for a variety of metrics, especially in the preservation realm. It will be very interesting to see what 2020 shows, since this will most likely be one of the most anomalous years in our history.
New Goals for 2021
In 2021, the Planning Commission will continue to implement the goals, objectives, and recommendations in Landscapes3. We will also have events associated with each of the six goal areas; Preserve, Protect, Appreciate, Live, Prosper, and Connect.
Major initiatives in 2021 will include continued municipal planning support via the Vision Partnership Program; a new Suburban Landscape Design Guide; extensive outreach to municipalities on open space; a climate action plan; support to municipalities on natural resource protection; guidance on renewable energy ordinances; an Adaptive Reuse Design Guide; the Town Tours and Village Walks; housing tools for missing-middle housing; an agricultural economic development plan; phase one of an updated public transportation plan; the biannual Transportation Improvement Inventory; a bike and pedestrian safety campaign; a complete streets policy; a bus shelter implementation effort; and an inventory of non-transportation infrastructure needs.
Ongoing major Landscapes3 initiatives include advocacy for good planning with our partners, maintaining the Pipeline Information Center, and continuing the Act 247 review process for subdivisions, land developments, ordinances, and plans.
It’s difficult to know which changes brought on by the pandemic will be temporary and which will be long term. We will work with our partners to address the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, no matter how long they might last, while continuing to implement the county’s long range plan for growth and preservation.