Asking Bill Gladden, Chester County's director of open space preservation, to name the highlight of this year's preservation projects is like asking him to pick his favorite child.He starts with one, goes to another, and by the time he's done listing his top picks he's gone through almost every one of nearly 30 projects. "I'm very pleased with them," Gladden said last Friday. "With all the development that Chester County has seen, it is wonderful to see that there are still opportunities out there for projects like these across the county. It really represents how wide the interest in parks, trails and preserves continues to be." As part of Round 20 of the county's overall open-space preservation effort, county commissioners last week approved 14 grants in the Municipal Park Grants Program totaling $2.6 million and 13 grants in the Preservation Partnership Program totaling $5.19 million.

Collectively, the grants will help preserve about 534 acres in the municipal program and 2,359 acres in the preservation program. Supplemented with funds put up by municipalities and conservation organizations, the total amount of funding for these projects is more than $62.8 million.

From its inception in the early 1990s, the effort to save land from encroaching development and suburban sprawl has become a centerpiece of government at the county and municipal levels. When there is any debate among political candidates, it is not over the worth of this effort but over how much funding to allocate.

The county commissioners this year intend to spend $20 million on open space projects. To date, they have already earmarked more than $4 million for agricultural preservation grants. And with the money dedicated in the projects, the county's total stands at almost $12 million.

The remainder of the funds will go to community revitalization grants and planning grants, Gladden said.

Gladden has served as open space director for four years. While addressing specific grants that were approved this year, he pointed to the number of municipalities that chose trail projects and the number of conservation organizations that took part in the county's farmland preservation program as themes he found telling.

Grants totaling $524,000 were given to five municipalities to build new or to expand on existing trails. The projects include construction of a Brandywine Battlefield Trail in Birmingham; construction of the southern portion of the Brandywine Creek Trail in East Bradford; construction of a park links trail in East Vincent; construction of a Mason-Dixon Gateway Trail in London Britain; and construction of a Marshallton Trail in West Bradford.

"The theme of the preservation efforts this year seems to be trails," said commissioners Chairwoman Carol Aichele in a written statement.

Commissioner Kathi Coz-zone said she thought those projects would please residents in particular. While running for office last year, she said, many voters told her that additional walking or riding trails are important needs.

"I think there are a lot of people in this county who make use of trails," she said Friday. "Health and fitness, being outdoors, learning about the environment those are really paramount issues to people here. I'm pleased to see things moving forward there."

In the preservation grants, Gladden mentioned the inclusion of six farmland programs in the lists of projects. Starting three years ago, the county has allowed conservation groups such as the Brandywine Conservancy and Natural Lands Trust to work with farmers who normally would not be associated with the county agricultural preservation grants to apply for funding.

In three cases this year, those projects include "plain-sect" farms owned by Amish or Mennonite farmers.

Gladden explained that in those cases, the landowners have chosen not to participate in the ag preservation program not because of the amount of money they were offered for preservation easements, but because of their reluctance to work with government.

In the farmland preservation program, the landowners work with the private conservation groups, which in turn work with the county to secure the funds.

Those "plain sect" grants include a 90-acre crops-and-dairy farm in Elk; a 78-acre crops-and-dairy farm in West Fallowfield; and a 38-acre crops-and-dairy farm in West Sadsbury. All three were preserved in conjunction with the Brandywine Conservancy and are within one mile of previously preserved farmland.

Other standout projects include the Springlawn and Foote Farm preserves in Elk, New London and Franklin, which will see more than 1,800

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