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The Pennsylvania Chautauqua Foundation held a public meeting Sunday to discuss the proposed plan for Soldiers Field and hear feedback from members of the community.
While nothing has been finalized, the Chautauqua is planning a paved entrance, a parking lot with 12 paved parking spaces (including two handicap-accessible) and 37 pervious (grass) parking spaces, and a fully ADA-compliant paved walking path.
The parking is meant to host visitors to the walking path, the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail, and Mount Gretna events like the annual Art Show.
Plans also include a crosswalk along Route 117, two walking paths along the abandoned narrow gauge railroad and abandoned beach path, and a new DEP-approved footbridge above Conewago Creek.
The proposed plan is not final. Chautauqua Foundation vice chairman John Feather said they will take the feedback received at Sunday’s meeting back to their engineer and decide what alterations, if any, they would like to make to the plan.
However, if no major changes are made, the foundation will submit the plan to the South Londonderry zoning enforcement officer within the next few months. If passed, construction would start either this fall or next year.
The proposed paving was met with mixed reactions. Many residents expressed concerns about the paving, with several saying they had been under the impression that paving would not be under consideration.
“I’m glad we, as a group, purchased Soldiers Field,” said resident Trish Lemon. “I never would have loved it to be a residential development with the growing number of those in farmers’ fields.
“But I never, ever, envisioned that what we would do with these grounds would be to put in a parking lot,” she said, met with applause from many in attendance.
Earlier reporting indicates that paving was not originally thought to be on the table, with neighborhood district chair Sue Hostetter having told LebTown in 2019 that “there will be no bright lights and no paving.”
Read More: Legacy secured as Chautauqua dedicates historic Soldiers Field
By 2022 though, the Chautauqua Foundation was exploring a small parking lot, although it was said at the time to be “years down the road.”
The parking spaces not paved will be laid with EZ paving, which is a fabric made up of cells designed to allow water to flow through. Feather said the cells would allow them to plant grass on the land, which was leveled by the National Guard and thus lacks the topsoil necessary to naturally grow grass.
The EZ paving would not be visible upon the project’s completion.
Feather said that the paved parking spots would be able to handle more use than the EZ paving, which is why there are 12 planned paved spots instead of just the two handicap-accessible spaces.
Several residents suggested looking into less harsh paving alternatives, which Feather said he would do.
Resident Joanne Gingrich suggested instead installing handicap-accessible spaces near the end of the trail leading to the proposed crosswalk at Route 117.
However, foundation trustee Bob Harding said that area is on the floodplain, making that option impossible.
Feathers said the six-foot-wide planned paved trail and footbridge add rare handicap accessibility to viewing nature. The trail includes lighting and benches throughout.
“Part of the preserving of Soldiers Field includes using Soldiers Field for recreation,” Feathers said. “It’s our belief that there’s always a need for ADA parking.”
Six wooden 17-foot lampposts are planned for the parking lot. Feather said the lights are like those at the Chautauqua and are designed to light the areas below them without being obtrusive from above or far to the side. The lights would be on a timer.
Feather said the lampposts are planned to accommodate South Londonderry requirements. Zoning code 315.N requires that “adequate lighting shall be provided if the parking lot is to be used at night.”
Some in attendance opposed the lighting as they felt it would be obtrusive to neighboring residents. Several residents said they would support the Chautauqua applying for an ordinance variance for the lighting requirement.
Others in attendance, including some Chautauqua Foundation trustees, expressed their support for the proposed plan.
“The lighting that the foundation is talking about will create light downward, not upward,” said Don Kensinger. “How could I not be pleased about that? How could I not be pleased with the fact that the foundation was extremely intentional about organizing and setting up an advisory committee?
“And who was part of that advisory committee? Residents from every part of Mount Gretna.”
The 18.1-acre site once served as a National Guard military encampment, training members of the Third Brigade as early as 1885 and as late as 1935. Feather said they plan to work with the Lebanon County Historical Society to install signs with QR codes detailing the site’s history.
The Chautauqua Foundation purchased the Soldiers Field property for $975,000 (acquisition costs totaling $1,042,668.57) in September 2018. Feather said the acquisition was a “defensive move by the community” to ensure the historic site remained undeveloped.
Read More: Mt. Gretna Soldiers Field purchase complete as Pennsylvania Chautauqua pays Eastern Enterprises nearly a million dollars
Since then, the Chautauqua has received a $400,000 state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) grant, which paid back the Jonestown Bank and Trust loan and reimburse the Chautauqua and Chautauqua Foundation for the acquisition expenses.
In exchange for the grant, the foundation has agreed not to develop Soldiers Field with commercial or residential buildings without DCNR permission. Chautauqua Foundation chairman John Weaver said there are no plans for such development.
The foundation also received a $9,270 Marcellus Shale grant for stormwater management work on the property, which was completed last May. The work was meant to reduce flooding problems like those that occurred at the 47th Mount Gretna Art Show.
Read More: Stormwater management system installed on Mount Gretna’s Soldiers Field
The Chautauqua received a $300,000 Conservation Fund grant last year and hopes to receive a $200,000 Lebanon County Commissioners American Rescue Plan Act grant this year.
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