Montgomery County on Thursday unveiled a new, $17.2 million open space plan that runs through 2016 and introduces new procedures intended to increase the accountability of open space grant recipients.
The new plan includes more than $3.8 million for trail projects within the county, including the resurfacing of two two-mile segments on the Schuylkill River Trail and the Perkiomen Trail, which the county said receive 400,000 visits per year. Another $1.6 million will be spent on improvements to a number of county parks, including the Norristown Farm Park, the Peter Wentz Farmstead in Worcester, Lower Perkiomen Valley Park in Oaks, and Upper Schuylkill Valley Park in Upper Providence.
$3 million is earmarked between 2013-15 for the construction of a new visitor center at the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove.
Some previously awarded grants rescinded
As the new spending plans were introduced at the county's Board of Commissioners meeting, board chairman Josh Shapiro also said that the county had decided to rescind four grants totaling $1.1 million that had been awarded by the previous administration. The Board of Commissioners had previously frozen the disbursement of those grant funds in April, pending an administrative review.
Shapiro said the county had previously lacked any mechanism for ensuring that grant monies were being used properly by the municipalities and third parties that received the awards.
"There was a heightened sensitivity towards our county's open space program [in December 2011]," Shapiro said. "Early in our administration, we became aware that unlike every other grant program that the county administers, there was never any signed contracts for open space grants. This was the case dating back to the inception of the program in 1993."
Three of the four cancelled projects were in Perkiomen Township, which voted locally to decline the grant money awarded by the county. The other project, known as the Piszek Property Acquisition, was located in Springfield and Upper Dublin Townships. The 95-acre project would have transferred 37 acres to the Montgomery County Lands Trust and preserved other open space in tandem with a residential housing project.
Land was left to heirs of frozen food magnate
Helen Piszek Nelson told the board on behalf of the Piszek family that she was "disappointed" in the county's decision to rescind its grant.
"We were left with this project when my father died back in 2005 … we wanted to do an open space plan. We contracted with a conservation developer and developed a plan where there would be 75 percent open space," Nelson said. Helen Piszek Nelson is the daughter of the late Edward Piszek, the founder of the Mrs. Paul's brand of frozen foods.
She said the family would not have benefitted monetarily from the project.
"We had to have some development to fulfill my father's will. He had established [the Copernicus Foundation, named for the Renaissance-era Polish astronomer]. The money that would have come in was going to go into the foundation. It was not going to go into any of the [Piszek] children's pockets," Nelson said.
Shapiro thanked Nelson for "her family's contributions to the community" and told her that the county had "an open door policy."
"You can always approach us in the future and we would look forward to working with you," Shapiro said.
Lee Soltysiak, the county's deputy chief operating officer for policy and planning, led the review of the outstanding grants awarded by the previous county administration. He said the developer that was involved when the Piszek project was approved had left the project.
"This project got beat up, as many projects did in the [weak] economy," Soltysiak said. "The agreement of sale that was in place, which is required for an open space grant, no longer existed."
While the Piszeks left the meeting disappointed, other representatives of open space interests were glad to hear that matters were moving forward.
Betsy Daley, executive director of the Schuykill Canal Association, called the new plan "music to [her] ears."
"I'm really glad to hear this and congratulate [the Board of Commissioners]. Thank you," Daley said.
Commissioner Leslie Richards said she was "very pleased" with the new open space budget.
"When many people are asked, 'What do you think of Montgomery County?' the first thing that comes to many people's minds are our open space and our trails. I think we've shown our commitment here," Richards said.
"This is a great day for open space," Shapiro said, "and a great day for our taxpayers."