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Township seeks funds to build wetlands center

September 26, 2000

Township seeks funds to build wetlands center



By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

WetlandsWAYNESBORO, Pa. - Washington Township, Pa., owns 72 acres of historic wetlands on a plateau in Blue Ridge Summit that township officials hope one day to turn into one of the area's major environmental educational facilities, if they can raise the money to do it.

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Township Administrator Michael Christopher estimates it will cost up to $500,000 to turn Happel's Meadow wetlands into an outdoor classroom for school children and a mecca for bird watchers and nature lovers.

It's a quiet corner that's home to animal, bird and plant life.

What's needed, said Gerry Zeigler, the township's zoning enforcement officer, is a means to allow people in to observe the wetlands without causing environmental damage.

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The township wants to build a network of boardwalks through the swamp and a tower to give visitors a panoramic view. Plans also call for an interpretive center to explain to visitors the importance of the wetlands.

At least an acre of land contiguous to the wetlands is needed for a parking lot and a building site for the interpretive center.

Letitia Gardiner and her children donated Happel's Meadow to the township in 1990 with the stipulation that it remain as wetlands and never be developed, Zeigler said.

The wetlands straddles Pa. 16 with 47 acres on the north side of the road and 25 acres on the south side, Zeigler said.

The Township Supervisors appointed a seven-member advisory committee to devise a plan to protect the wetlands, inventory its plants and animals and turn it into an educational and passive recreational facility.

Committee member Doris Goldman, who holds a doctorate in ecology, inventoried the plants and trees in the swamp over a two-year period in the mid-1990s. She found more than 200 varieties, including a handful of rare and endangered plants, among them two varieties of sedge, bottled gentian and Virginia mountain mint.

Goldman said to find all the varieties, research had to be done year-round, even during the wet season.

"There were times when I'd be wet up to my armpits," she said.

The wetlands, a flat bowl surrounded by hills, was originally known as Bear Swamp. According to the management plan drafted by the advisory committee, the first known transfer of the property occurred in 1798.

It was owned by Dr. Robert Johnson, George Washington's personal physician, who grew ginseng on the land for export. He sold the swamp to Patrick Mooney for 300 pounds.

Subsequent owners were Lewis Ripple, Sam'l Buhrman, Henry Yingling, the Monterey Land Co., and then the Happel family.

According to Zeigler, the Happels drained the swamp and turned it into a huge vegetable garden around the turn of the 20th century. The family sold their produce to the Pen Mar Park resort area as well as to the owners of large, elegant private homes built in Blue Ridge Summit by wealthy people from the cities who came to the summit for the summer.

"There were even summer embassies set up there from Washington D.C. I remember the Chinese Embassy being there myself," Zeigler said.

The Happels became famous locally for the celery their fields produced. At one end of their property, they built a small pond from which they would harvest ice in the winter.

Zeigler said the building of Pa. 16 between 1938 to 1941 ended the Happels' farming days. The new road cut the property in two and destroyed the drainage system the Happels had built, he said.

"After that the area returned to its natural state as a wetlands," Zeigler said.

Charles Gardiner bought the property in 1963.

Christopher said he hopes the township can receive donations, possibly even bequests from wills, to get the seed money it needs to begin applying for matching grants to get the Happel's Meadow project moving.

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