The master plan for the development of a 'farm park' on the former farm grounds of the Norristown State Hospital outlines goals for the future of the site, describes the existing site conditions, and proposes a master plan for the development of the site for recreational and agricultural uses.
The 690-acre site belongs to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and is administered by the Department of Environmental Resources, Bureau of State Parks. It is proposed that Montgomery County will assume the responsibility for the improvement, maintenance, operation and administration of the farm park through a lease agreement with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
The farm park will blend recreation opportunities and agricultural activities on one site, creating a new regional park in this suburban area. Facilities will be provided for typical passive activities including walking, biking, picnicking, fishing, and nature study. Additionally, a limited amount of multiuse turf areas for informal field games or events will be provided.
Nearly all of the site's 100 acres of woodland will be preserved. The farm fields and some of the existing buildings will be leased to a tenant farmer through an agreement with the county. An advisory committee, representing the local municipalities, will advise the commonwealth and county on the continuing development of the site. The County Planning Commission will prepare designs for the proposed facilities.
THE TASK FORCE
The master plan was developed by the Norristown State Hospital Task Force. The task force included representatives from East Norriton Township, Norristown Borough, West Norriton Township, the county, the commonwealth (through the Bureau of State Parks) and the local legislative districts in which the park is located.
The task force established the goals and basic concept for site development, initiated the rehabilitation of the site, and developed the master plan. The task force convened in December 1987 and has met on a regular basis since.
The Norristown State Hospital Task Force has identified goals for the Norristown State Hospital Farm:
To preserve this unique and valuable open space. The former Norristown State Hospital farm site is one of the last undeveloped parcels of its size under single ownership in the eastern half of Montgomery County. That alone makes this 690-acre tract a tremendous open space resource for the region.
To provide passive recreation for the region. The commonwealth's recommendations for this area include the need for more bicycle paths, picnic areas, hiking trails, playgrounds, passive areas, jogging areas, and fishing areas. Incorporating these elements into the design concept for this site will help to satisfy regional recreation needs. Passive recreation is emphasized.
To preserve farming operations on the agricultural lands. The hospital farm acreage is unique and worthy of preservation because it is a remnant of the rural landscape once common to this area. The farm is large enough to stand on its own as a productive farm and an oasis of rural character. The fields at the Norristown State Hospital have been farmed for over 200 years. A working farm connected to a park with recreational and educational opportunities will continue and strengthen that legacy.
This 690-acre site was once part of the large land holdings of William Penn. By the time of the American Revolution, the site had been divided into seven different farms, or "plantations." There were grist mills, sawmills, a plaster mill, and powder mills. There is evidence of former mill sites, dams, and mill races. These mills attracted and supported the first commercial growth in the region, especially for the town of Norristown and Norriton Township.
Between 1875 and 1880, the land was acquired by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and developed as the State Hospital for the Insane of the Southeastern District. The farm acreage was used for food production for the hospital and as a form of mental health therapy. It was thought that psychiatric patients benefited from communing with nature through farming. On May 7, 1980, the Department of Public Welfare, which owns and manages the Norristown State Hospital, transferred 690 acres (the farm part of the hospital grounds) to the Department of Agriculture.
From 1985 to 1987, the property was not farmed and the land and farm buildings fell into a state of disrepair. A proposal was made to transfer the farm grounds to the Department of Environmental Resources for use as a park. The site was transferred from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Environmental Resources in May 1987. General improvements to the roadways and buildings began at that time. Under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of State Parks, the land will be preserved as a park.
The farmed fields and the wooded creek valley are the dominant features on this site. Two branches of the Stony Creek flow through the farm grounds. The creek's year-round, low, and shallow stream flow is augmented by stormwater runoff in the watershed.
The site's natural characteristics and farming activities, as well as its quiet isolation amidst surrounding development, make it a fine habitat and haven for wildlife. Diverse and abundant wildlife can be found throughout the site’s farm fields, hedgerows, woodland edges, the creek corridor, and in the water. The plant communities on the site have been shaped by past and present farming patterns. The types of forest that remain, their locations, and even the species mix have been affected.
The site's existing buildings represent two distinct periods: private farms of the early 1800s and the institutional structures of the early 1900s. There are ten significant buildings remaining on the site. These will be incorporated into the designs of the farm park as visitor centers, restored historic structures, park offices, farm offices, residences, barns, and maintenance buildings. The most prominent buildings on the site are the four-winged Dairy Barn and the adjacent Milk House. The Dairy Barn will be used for both farm and park activities. The Milk House will be the site’s main visitor center and the park headquarters.
The farm park site has an internal road system. Nearly three miles of the existing farm roads were repaved in 1989. Gates have been installed for security. There are several bridges crossing the Stony Creek and the railroad, including a large, stone arched bridge.
The Stony Creek Rail Line (the Stony Creek branch), owned by SEPTA, passes through the site for approximately one mile. The line is an extension of SEPTA's Norristown commuter line, which ends at the Elm Street Station. In some places the tracks are at-grade. In others, they have steep embankments on both sides.
THE FARM PARK
A 'farm park' was proposed for this site because it would meet the goals set by the task force (preserving open space, providing passive recreation, and maintaining agriculture) and it would complement the existing site conditions. The concept of a farm park, a place where a working farm and a public park coexist, requires careful planning so that the interaction of the two elements is positive. A balance of connections and separations between the farm and the park will ensure the success of both.
A farm park will allow for passive recreation, educational opportunities, and the environmental enhancement of the property, as well as the restoration, rehabilitation, and interpretation of significant existing site features.
The farm park landscape will retain the open, pastoral character of the existing site. Proposed landscape elements will reflect this existing, rural character; and designs will be patterned on typical rural landscapes.
Three entrances are proposed for the farm park: a Germantown Pike entrance, a Whitehall Road entrance, and a Stanbridge Street entrance. The designs for these entrances will consider safe and efficient access to the site. All areas of the farm park will be accessible from each of the three entrances. Internal park roads will connect all of the activity areas, farm operation areas, and park entrances. The internal park roads will be designed to discourage through traffic and to ensure pedestrian and vehicle safety.
The prominent water feature on the site is, of course, the Stony Creek. It is expected that the creek will attract many park visitors because of its natural beauty and fishing opportunities.
Park visitors will naturally gravitate to the creek and the woodlands around the creek. The recreation areas are nestled against these woodlands. In order to provide an even greater variety of recreation opportunities and wildlife habitat, additional water elements are proposed. A series of ponds, three along the creek and one upland, are proposed. Engineering studies will determine the feasibility of the proposed ponds.
Two types of recreation facilities are proposed for the farm park. The first is the trail system which winds its way throughout the park, and the second is the activity areas which concentrate specific recreation facilities at a particular location. The designs for both types of proposed recreation facilities will consider accessibility for physically challenged (handicapped) visitors.
Paved trails are proposed for a mix of activities including biking, walking, jogging, and cross country skiing. These trails will be a minimum of ten feet wide and will be easily accessible to visitors of all ages and abilities. Emergency vehicles, park maintenance vehicles, and farm equipment vehicles will have access to the trails.
There will be ten miles of paved trails accessing all of the areas of the park. The trails will connect the three vehicular entrances and the activity areas. Parking for trail users will be provided within the farm park. There will also be carefully sited pedestrian access points from off-site sidewalks and streets that will bring residents from adjacent neighborhoods into the park. Access points will be positioned for safe pedestrian flow.
The trail system has been laid out in a way that will provide the visitor with a range of environments and trail experiences. The trail goes by the creek and ponds, to overlook points, into the woodlands, and into areas of the farm park that will be mainly agricultural. In some cases, existing farm roads will be closed to visitor vehicle traffic and used for the trail. Benches, small shelters, and picnic tables will be placed along the trail where appropriate.
In addition to the paved trail, eight miles of footpaths are planned making the total trail network 18 miles long. These unpaved footpaths will typically be four to six feet wide. They will be suitable only for pedestrians. They will cross areas of the site unsuitable for bicycles or wheelchairs.
In addition to the linear trail network, recreational facilities will be concentrated in six activity areas. Each of the six areas will have parking, picnic tables, pavilions, restrooms, lawn areas, and access to the trails and footpaths. One recreation element will be stressed in each area. The activity areas will work together to provide a wide range of recreation opportunities.
These six activity areas will be developed in the farm park:
Playground - The playground will have two children's bike paths (for different age groups) and standard play equipment.
Nature Trails - The interpretive nature trails will wind through an area of the site rich in plant and animal species.
Farm Center - The Dairy Barn, Milk House, Spring House, and other farm buildings are the core of the farm center.
Multiuse Field - A 5.8-acre, turf field is proposed adjacent to a picnic grove and pond.
Picnic Area - Pavilions, play areas, and a pond are proposed for typical day-use park activities.
Hill Ponds - This quiet area, for picnicking and fishing, overlooks the farm landscape.
The parking areas shown in each activity area, and at the Stanbridge entrance, are intended to accommodate the maximum build out of the farm park. Adequate space is provided for visitors using the activity areas and the trail network on a typical heavy-use day.
PARK MANAGEMENT AND OPERATION
The farm park will be part of the inventory of county operated open space/parkland and will be maintained and operated by the Montgomery County Departments of Parks and History and Cultural Arts. Inclusion of the farm park into the existing parks management organization ensures that the farm park will be run in an efficient and professional manner in keeping with current standards and practices. The park will be open during daylight hours; the entrances will be gated at night. The park will be staffed with administration and maintenance personnel, and park rangers. Police and fire protection services are being provided through the joint effort of East Norriton Township, West Norriton Township, and Norristown Borough.
Several farm buildings and 475 acres of farmland are currently being leased to a farmer. The farm lease may be altered to provide the needed land for the proposed recreation facilities identified in the adopted master plan. The farm will be carefully monitored by the Soil Conservation Service and managed according to the provisions and stipulations of the Soil and Water Conservation Plan, which are incorporated as part of the farm lease.
Funding for the improvement, maintenance, operation, and administration of the farm park will be shared by the commonwealth and the county based on an approved yearly budget. The commonwealth, through the Department of Environmental Resources, will encumber a specified amount per year for the development of the farm park.
Capital budget items in excess of $100,000 may be funded through a separate legislative process.
The physical development of the farm park has been divided into four phases in order to provide for coordinated, progressive development based on projected user needs. Each phase is intended to be a five-year period, however, the length of each phase may vary depending on available funding and visitor needs. Each phase has distinct goals that require specific improvements.
The goals for phase 1 are to open the site for visitor use, provide for visitor safety and convenience, and complete the engineering studies needed for continued development. Improvements in this phase will include the construction of the entrance drive from Stanbridge Street and initial development of the Picnic Area and the Farm Center activity areas.
The goals for phase 2 are to provide for more visitor use, open two additional activity areas, and begin to separate the paved trails from the farm park roads. Improvements in this phase will include the construction of two ponds, development of five miles of paved trail, continued development of the Picnic Area and the Farm Center, and the development of the Playground and Multiuse Field activity areas.
The goals for Phase 3 are to complete the basic components of the farm park, complete the separation of the roads and trails, and provide vehicular and pedestrian access to all areas on the site. Improvements in this phase will include the construction of two more ponds, development of two and a half miles of paved trail, continued development of the Picnic Area, Farm Center, and Multiuse Field areas, and the development of the Nature Trail activity area.
The goal for phase 4 is to complete all park developments. Improvements in this phase will include continued development of the Farm Center and Nature Trail areas, development of the Hill Pond activity area, and the construction of two and a half miles of paved trail.
The Norristown State Hospital Task Force has been working for four years to develop a plan to preserve this unique open space for the future and to ensure its development as a park. An advisory committee, established in the lease agreement between the commonwealth and the county, will take the place of the task force. The advisory committee will serve in the capacity of reviewer/advisor to the commonwealth and the county; and shall consider all aspects of park development and operation. The continued dedication and cooperation of East Norriton Township, Norristown Borough, West Norriton Township, the commonwealth, and the county will ensure the success of the proposed farm park, establish a recreation resource for the community, and preserve this example of the region's agricultural heritage.
The Master Plan for the Lands of the Norristown State Hospital Farm will be available in the fall of 1991. For copies of this executive summary or the complete master plan, contact the administrative offices of East Norriton Township, Norristown Borough, West Norriton Township, or the Montgomery County Planning Commission.