Gone With the Wind
, Scarlett O'Hara matures from blithe egoist to one who ferociously cherishes Tara, her ancestral home, and appreciates the wise words of her father.
"Land is the only thing in the world worth workin' for, worth fightin' for, worth dyin' for," Gerald O'Hara had admonished his willful daughter, "because it's the only thing that lasts."
Bitten Krentel is no Scarlett O'Hara. For starters, she's Danish, not Irish. (Her maiden name: Jensen.) But where Scarlett had her Tara, Krentel had her Lisalund. And it was Lisalund that inspired Krentel to become a passionate advocate for preserving open space and the pastoral splendor of Chester County, now under mounting assault.
Lisalund comprised 60 acres of meadows and wooded slopes in Wallace Township. Presiding over it was an ancient fieldstone manor house with an unusually capacious hearth. The original section was erected around 1740.
Krentel's parents bought the property in 1944 for $3,000. The house was in bad shape, with no water or heat. They fell in love with it anyway. It was the first home they owned, and they set about restoring and improving it. They named it "Lisalund" after Krentel's mother.
"It was like a member of the family. It gave us roots in this county, and was so important to us emotionally," says Krentel, 77, whose first name is pronounced BEE-ten. "Our hearts were here in these woods."
Even when Krentel and her husband, Bob, spent 10 years living in Brazil and Portugal, Lisalund remained their North Star.
"Wherever we lived, wherever we wandered, we had an anchor, someplace beloved we could always come home to," says Krentel.
That love of the particular led to love of the general, in this case Wallace Township.
In northwestern Chester County, Wallace is roughly congruent with Springton Manor, one of the plots into which William Penn sectioned his land grant. In the early 20th century, many Main Liners established their country retreats there. Today, Wallace is a bedroom community. Only one working farm remains.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike skirts the northeastern border of the township, but neither ingests nor disgorges traffic there. Wallace is a land of two-lane country roads and blue highways, and the town fathers and mothers are eager to keep it that way.
Township ordinances forbid municipal water and those pretentious signs at entrances to developments (e.g., "The Ridings at Fox Chase Mews"). "They inhibit a sense of community," Krentel explains. "You don't live in Meadow Green. You live in Wallace Township."
In 1940, the township's population was 597. By 2005, it had grown to more than 3,400. Krentel helped guide that growth from 1975 to 1998 as a member of the township Planning Commission, which she chaired for 15 years. In the early '90s, she helped craft a zoning code, with the counsel of the Natural Lands Trust, that spared open space by promoting so-called cluster zoning.
"It was very new at the time, so we had to learn how to do it," says Krentel. "We encouraged developers to work with us. We tried to save a portion of every subdivision for open space, sometimes as much as 50 to 60 percent."
The approach earned the township an award for excellence from Gov. Tom Ridge and has served as a model for other communities in the state.
"There have been some glitches, but it has worked," says Krentel. "Every development must leave a good portion in open space."
To protect additional land, Krentel helped create the Wallace Trust, which, through grants and donations, has purchased conservation easements on property that is distinctive or environmentally delicate. Krentel is president of the trust, which is guardian of 112 acres.
"She's really been the spark plug in all these things," says Alice Halsema, a former township supervisor and planner. "She tries to get everyone involved, and then she keeps plugging along, making sure people keep their eye on the ball."
"When you ask Bitten how she is, she says, 'Better and better.' It's kind of a mantra with her," says Lou Schneider, who has also worked with Krentel over the years. "And the thing she's done here is she's pushed Wallace in that direction in one way or another. In the face of all sorts of opposition, setbacks and apathy, she's ceaselessly optimistic."
A refined, gracious woman whose diction calls to mind Katharine Hepburn in her prime, Krentel deflects credit. She sees what happened in Wallace as a serendipitous confluence of the right people at the right time and place.
"We had a wonderful group of talented, intelligent citizens who were willing to donate loads and loads of time and were dedicated to the same vision - saving as much land as we could and the look of being out in the country," she says.
They succeeded, but fresh challenges always emerge. The Hankin Group has proposed building a community called Hamilton that would put 688 dwellings of different types on 635 acres and roughly double the township's population. In negotiations with Krentel's successors, the developer has agreed to set aside 60 percent of the land for open space, including a 100-acre natural preserve, which protects a wooded stream valley and wetlands.
Krentel, of course, is keenly interested. This is still her home, her land. In 2001, the Krentels decided, with much reluctance, to sell Lisalund so they could retire. The 60 acres were divided. The manor house and about 15 acres went to a new owner. Seventeen acres were carved out for their daughter and her home. A neighbor bought 41/2 acres. Several pieces were deed-restricted so they would remain in their natural state. On an acre and a half, the Krentels built what they call their "nest," while retaining an additional 22 acres as their "nest egg."
Their retirement house is a simple, rustic structure they designed. Its colors mimic the hues of the surrounding trees. "We wanted it to disappear into the woods, to be as invisible as possible," says Krentel.
It's a house that epitomizes her philosophy: One can live on the land and respect it, too.
"We all have something we care about more than anything else," Krentel says. "Some people care about politics or sports. I care about the land."