A clearing in Pennypack Park that often serves as a makeshift party site for drinkers was littered with remnants of a St. Patrick’s Day celebration from over the weekend – beer cans and cases, plastic bags, plastic green necklaces and even a bright green mask. Members of Friends of Pennypack Park, a volunteer organization that removes trash and clears dirt trails in the park, rode into the park on their tractors to clear it up, as they do every Monday and Wednesday morning.
Monday marked the group’s final ride out into the woods. The organization is going dormant (meaning it’s ending operations with the possibility of being resurrected in the future) after being sued for two accidents that happened in Pennypack Park.
Two accidents the organization had absolutely no involvement with.
One of the incidents occurred in 2019 when a tree branch fell on a young girl, putting her into a coma for several days. The family sued the city of Philadelphia as well as Friends of Pennypack Park and Bustleton Services, a subcontractor that had previously completed work in the park. Lawyers were able to lump the volunteer organization in on the lawsuit because it has “Pennypack Park” in the name.
It wasn’t the first time something like this happened. The organization had been sued several years ago after a teenager drowned while swimming in Pennypack Creek, an incident that again had nothing do with the Friends of Pennypack.
After the recent incident, FOPP’s insurance company hired attorneys to defend the group, and they eventually chose to settle with the opposing law firm. After that, the insurance company informed FOPP it would not be renewing its coverage. Friends groups in Philadelphia are required to have liability insurance in order to host events such as cleanups.
“I don’t know who’s going to do this now,” said volunteer Kevin Sweetra, who’s been a volunteer with FOPP for 10 years. “I don’t know if anyone is going to do this.”
FOPP is insured until April 5, meaning a miracle could happen between now and then if an insurance company agrees to cover the group – a task that’s become near impossible in light of the lawsuits against the group. Nevertheless, Monday’s outing will be its last, with coronavirus bringing cleanups to an even earlier bow.
President Linde Lauff has been with the group since it revitalized 25 years ago. The group had been active in the 1950s and ’60s before going dormant due to issues with swimming holes in the park. When it first revitalized, Lauff recalled burned-out cars in the park, and trash spilling into the creek itself.
“Unless people go out and do it on their own now, the park will end up being what it used to be,” she said.
Hope remains for the organization to one day return from dormancy with the help of legislation. House Bill 2310, sponsored primarily by state Rep. Mike Driscoll, would protect Friends groups (Pennypack and others) that volunteer in parks.
The legislation would provide that a volunteer park organization cannot generally be held liable for volunteer public services, programs or projects. Lauff encourages people to call their state representative and voice their support of the bill.
The full bill and list of sponsors can be found at Legiscan.com/PA/Bill/HB2310/2019.
If the legislation is passed, the group has the possibility of coming out of dormancy and resuming its cleanups in the future. But with the slow-moving process in Harrisburg being further hampered by delays due to coronavirus, seeing the legislation come to be within the next year could be a longshot.
“It’s not a priority right now,” Lauff said.
Volunteers would host cleanups twice a week for three to four hours each time. If temperatures drop to the teens or scorch in the upper 90s, or if there’s snow or rain, they won’t go – but the volunteers would show in nearly every other condition.
The group also planted and paid for trees with money it earned for the aluminum removed from the park. FOPP planted roughly 45 trees a year, with a total figure that reaches well into triple digits throughout the years.
After cleaning trash, the group got to work removing fallen tree branches blocking a dirt trail in the park off of Benton Avenue. The city Department of Parks & Recreation handles fallen trees on paved pathways – FOPP removed only dead trees that had fallen over and were blocking dirt pathways.
With three heavy trees moved, members packed the equipment up in their two Gators and one tractor. They kept the vehicles in a shed housed close to Pennypack Environmental Center. One of the last decisions yet to be made is what to do with the equipment and the organization’s remaining funds, but that decision remains for another day.
Then, with a good day’s work behind them, the volunteers closed the shed doors, said their farewells and went their separate ways.