Leesburg Falls. It’s scenic. It’s romantic. It’s largely untouched.
It’s beloved to many area residents for its beauty and rich local history.
It should come as no surprise that, in the past, people have fought either to commercialize or capitalize upon the beauty of the spot.
None has succeeded — until now.
Larry and Linda Bruno, owners of Bruno Jewelers in Hermitage, own property adjacent to the falls. Monday evening, they were given the go-ahead by Springfield Township officials to continue with plans to build a new home for their store, and restore a historic building there to house a gallery of local art.
The township’s zoning hearing board unanimously approved the variance, with the township’s planning commission approving the site’s final plan.
“I don’t know how I feel. My emotions are about shot,” Bruno said after a public hearing and subsequent planning commission meeting.
At the hearing, Bruno requested a variance from the township’s zoning ordinance, which requires structures be set back 25 feet from an old railroad right of way. The variance would allow Bruno to build his store 20 feet into the right of way, thus keeping it back from the edge of the falls’ gorge. The variance, explained architect Lee Ligo, is simply a courtesy on the Brunos’ part:
“We can build the building without this variance, but we feel (it) is in the best interests of the preservation of the property,” Ligo said. “With the requested variance, we can avoid any disturbance of the gorge, the valley and any of the historical remnants, like the iron furnace.”
Bruno’s property includes what may be the first iron furnace operated in Mercer County — water-powered by a wheel at the falls — and the forerunner of the county’s staple industry: steel.
“The Brunos realize what’s down there, and they want to maintain it, they want to keep it, they do not want to disturb it,” Ligo said.
He noted that the railroad right of way is on Pennsylvania Game Commission property. It was unknown, however, when Bruno and Ligo first submitted their concept to the township’s planning commission last month, whether the Brunos would be able to use the railroad bed to access a proposed parking area. If not, the parking area would have to be moved.
They sought information from the Game Commission and had with them Monday a letter from the state clarifying the matter.
“This is not the first time the Game Commission has been approached about the railroad,” said Jim Donatelli, land management officer for the commission. “Back in the early ’90s, someone proposed putting a hotel facing the falls. They wanted the Game Commission to trade them the water falls and the railroad grade in return for property elsewhere. Sometimes we do make land trades if it’s in the best interests of the wildlife.”
When Bruno approached the state about using the state-owned, 60-foot railroad right of way running through his property, he offered to trade land elsewhere in exchange, Donatelli said.
“We’re not interested in land elsewhere (in this case) — but he has now been offered a 50-foot right-of-way license over the grade,” Donatelli said.
Some citizens were confused about the placement of the proposed jewelry store in relation to the waterfalls, and were concerned that the variance would situate the store right at the edge of the cliff over the falls, disturbing the familiar view.
“I can see this as a real win-win situation for everyone, but to be clear about how our experience is going to change: If we’re going to stand at the foot of the falls and stare into a jewelry store, I’m not experiencing an outstanding scenic feature, I’m experiencing a jewelry store,” said Kate Burk, a Leesburg Station Road resident.
“It’s not going to be anywhere near (the edge),” Bruno said after the hearing. The store will be on the west bank of the falls, but between 150 and 200 feet back from the edge, he added. “If you’re standing at the bottom (of the gorge) and looking up (at the falls), it’s going to be behind you.
“We’re going to try to keep the natural habitat there; I love natural habitat. The gorge, we didn’t want to touch – it’s gorgeous. The furnace is down there, and that’s all going to be cleared away and it’s going to look like a new penny when we get done. It’s just going to be fantastic.”
Despite assurances that the property will be preserved, Audrey Pollock and Jim DeCourt expressed similar concerns about the commercialization of the site.
According to Pollock, “10,500 years predating the furnace, this gift (of the falls) was given to us by God. I respect what you’re doing, but my question to you is, if you had no opportunity to build a jewelry store and commercialize that area, would you still invest your time, energy and money into that area?
“I think most people are against the commercialization of the area, not the maintenance.”
Part of Bruno’s plan is to take care of the falls gorge and valley area, keeping it clean, well-lighted and safe for tourists, Ligo noted. He added that the Brunos are restoring the 1840s-era historic ironmaster’s house on the property, and the new store will be built to blend in with its surroundings. It will feature a stone base, hemlock sides, and a glass wall overlooking the gorge.
DeCourt, who lives behind Rachel’s Roadhouse, was concerned that this small-scale development will lead into something bigger.
“My concern is, where will it stop?” he asked. “Where do we go from here? ... I don’t know if it’s a good idea (to build near the falls).”
Ligo explained the logic behind the development.
“Every train needs an engine. The Brunos have a very fine store with a very fine clientele. They’re going to bring people here. They can close their Sharon store, and what happens? They die,” Ligo said.
“There has to be a reason, financially and business-wise, to bring people here.
“What they pose is, if they can, utilize the falls as a destination — then they can have a successful business. And, if they have a successful business, they will have an engine that will pay for the restoration of the (ironmaster’s) house, the maintenance of the valley.”
Also, despite some rumors and misleading information, the Brunos are not clear-cutting the property, Ligo said — there is a property owner nearby who has leased his land for a logging operation, but the Brunos have nothing to do with it. They have cut down one tree in danger of falling on the historic house, he added.
“Over the past 14 years, the house sat empty. We’ve played many roles to look after it,” said Christopher Tyner, who along with his wife owns Neshannock Woods Co. next door.
“Of all the people that have been interested in this property, Larry and Linda Bruno are by far the best possible owners and stewards of this property that have come along. They both have a genuine interest in the history of the house and the natural setting.”
Tyner, who in the 22 years he has lived near the falls has built a trail, installed signs and identifed hundreds of species of flora and fauna living there, was deeply concerned about what would happen if and when the property was bought.
“In an age when our history is being torn down faster than it’s being preserved, Springfield Township, Mercer County, and its residents should embrace and celebrate this opportunity to preserve, restore and ensure a positive future for this piece of property,” Tyner said.
“Mr. Bruno’s effort is one complementary to preservation, something that is rare in this area,” agreed Jay Behm.
“No institutions or individuals have stepped forward with a working plan to preserve both the beauty and history, until Mr. Bruno came forward with his own money, his time and his sweat – and I’ve seen him sweat.”
He added that the area around the falls does need a lot of care — beer bottles, cans and plastic bags litter the scenic spot, which is popular both with tourists and, apparently, with kids looking for an isolated place to party.
The Brunos said they hope to keep it beautiful for the public’s enjoyment.
“We’re going from looking at a cinderblock wall to looking at falls,” Mrs. Bruno said of the jewelry store’s current location in a shopping center in Hermitage.
“Finally, we’ll be able to go to work every day and look at something so beautiful.”
“And our customers will, too,” her husband added.
Leesburg Falls. It’s scenic. It’s romantic. It’s largely untouched.