A group of homeowners are optimistic they’ll be able to prevent the development of an 18-acre tract that borders the iconic Mount Gretna Lake & Beach and includes the historic Soldiers Field.
But to do so the group needs to purchase the land, and it’s still more than $290,000 short with a little more than a week before a deadline to vote on moving forward with the purchase.
“This is the time to do it. If we don’t do it now, it will most likely be sold for development and disappear,” said John Feather, a resident of the historic borough in Lebanon County and co-chair of the Committee to Save Soldiers Field.
An effort to raise the $1.036 million needed to purchase the land has collected $752,000. The 207 property owners and stockholders in the Pennsylvania Chautauqua — one of the founding pillars of Mount Gretna — will vote on July 20 whether to proceed with the purchase by borrowing the balance and paying it off over 20 years with proceeds from the annual show.
Feather is optimistic there is solid support to do just that.
Fearful of development
Many residents fear development in the heart of Mount Gretna would be a dagger to the charm of the quaint, shaded community, known for its Victorian homes, cultural offerings, swimming lake and art show.
Several Lancaster County residents own homes or visit Mount Gretna, and four of the seven members of the Committee to Save Soldiers Field are from Lancaster County, including Fred Buch.
Buch, 80, owns a cottage in the borough. The Ephrata resident is among those who wants to preserve the fields where Pennsylvania soldiers trained before being shipped off to the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II.
“We think it’s only fitting that we keep some open space there in respect for those people,” said Buch, who donated toward the land purchase.
‘Buy it or watch it be developed’
The land is owned by Eastern Enterprises, comprised of the Otto family that has owned much of the property surrounding the borough since the 1940s.
The company owns Mount Gretna Lake & Beach, the miniature golf course and the roller skating rink.
Feather said he approached the Otto family in 2013 on behalf of the Pennsylvania Chautauqua board and was given right of first refusal for a price of $975,000.
The Chautauqua obtained several appraisals which showed the land was priced too high, but the company would not budge in its asking price, according to Feather.
He said the Otto family showed the Chautauqua a sketch plan with up to 10 homes on the property.
“It was one of those things where you either buy it or watch it be developed,” he said.
Eastern Enterprises president Dr. Gene P. Otto III, in an interview Wednesday, said he was willing to see the land preserved.
“We have preserved it all these years. Their (Chautauqua) goal is compatible with what we’ve always done.”
Contributing to the next generations
“I think the principal value is preserving open space in Mount Gretna, which we see as gradually disappearing,” said Feather, who pointed out other land bordering the borough is currently for sale.
If the mostly wooded land is able to be purchased and preserved, plans for the tract include recreation, environmental study, badly needed overflow parking for Mount Gretna events and a riparian buffer to protect Conewago Creek and the lake it drains into.
Buch, who learned to swim in the lake in 1947, says the current populace who find Mount Gretna so special needs to step up.
“There’s so many people who have contributed to our enjoyment today and I think we need to contribute to the next generations.”