In Pennsylvania, Controlling Access to a Unique Almost-Public Park

A six-foot chain-link fence stands between me and my goal. A uniformed sentry stops motorists at the entrance to check for identification.

I don't have the right kind of ID, so I approach cautiously, on foot. A brief glance in the guard's direction, an air of feigned nonchalance. A few more steps and... I'm in!

Have I broken into an exclusive gated community? A private club, perhaps?

In a manner of speaking, yes.

The object of my desire is Abington Township's Alverthorpe Park, a 130-acre gem with wooded trails, playgrounds, ball fields, and a nine-hole golf course. Only township residents and their guests are allowed in - a stipulation made by former Sears, Roebuck & Co. chairman Lessing Rosenwald when he donated the land in the early 1960s.

The exclusionary policy is a source of some irritation to nonresidents in the surrounding area - some of whom sneak in anyway, as I did one day recently.

Call it park envy. For all its charms, this part of eastern Montgomery County - like many older, built-up suburbs of Philadelphia - has precious little open space.

Just 10 percent of the land in Cheltenham Township is classified as open, according to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, and residents cling to what is left with fervor. When the vacant former Cheltenham High School burned down, for example, the county bought the land in 1995, at residents' urging, and turned it into High School Park.

In tiny Jenkintown, the percentage of open space is even lower - zero, according to the commission, whose definition does not include playgrounds and ball fields. When the borough needed to build a high school football field years ago, space was so scarce that the school had to fill in a pond, or so the story goes.

That's why the school's sports mascot is the drake - the term for a male duck.

"The kids affectionately call it the duck pond," athletic director Tom Roller said of the field. "I've heard that story ever since I came here."

Hence the allure of Alverthorpe.

Abington officials are aware that people from park-starved adjacent communities sneak into their park from time to time, but they are not amused.

Aside from the stipulation from the Rosenwald family, the park is closed to outsiders also because it is paid for exclusively through township property taxes and user fees. Some parks receive funds from other levels of government, such as the state, and are thus obligated to remain open to the wider public.

Not so Alverthorpe, Abington Township Manager Tom Conway said.

"We have 56,000 residents who use it quite regularly," Conway said of the park. "To open it up to others would make it overcrowded."

The park budget is $160,000 a year, of which $60,000 is offset by various user fees, including a charge to use the golf course. The remaining $100,000 comes from local property taxes.

Residents from nearby Rockledge have complained about being excluded from Alverthorpe, as they pay school taxes to Abington. But the park is funded by municipal property taxes.

Some outsiders have resorted to borrowing ID cards from township residents to gain access. Others use the walk-in approach, perhaps hoping the guard will assume they are township residents.

Feeling a little sheepish about my own deceptive stunt, I picked up someone's trash during my stroll through Alverthorpe.

Park intruder I might have been, but at least I left it in better shape than when I came.