Inquirer: “A not-so-funny thing about the road from Villanova to Mechanicsburg”
JUNE 17, 2018
I’m calling it Lazy Lane.
On Google Maps, it shows up as an east-west ribbon of road stretching 100 miles west from the Haas family’s former Stoneleigh estate in Villanova, to a historic Pennsylvania farm near Mechanicsburg where the reaper was invented by a member of the McCormick family.
Yes, Lazy Lane. Because it connects two preserved gems of open space that are at risk of being obliterated by two lazy school districts.
Stoneleigh and McCormick Farm are, under state law and the eyes of the IRS, protected from development in perpetuity by conservation easements.
Former owners placed the legally binding restrictions onto the land over the last several decades, gave up the right to sell it to developers, got tax breaks in return, and gave society oases of green never to be desecrated by human hand.
And yet, here we are in the the summer of 2018 and both are in the bull’s-eye of local school districts looking for a sweat-free landgrab to build new schools.
All these districts have to do is drop a few court filings before — presto! — the powers of eminent domain take effect. A little more paper makes the easements vanish, and the law is overwhelmingly in their favor of winning a challenge.
Lazy, lazy, lazy. And bad, bad, bad.
It’s unprecedented in Pennsylvania to see what’s unfolding, in tandem, at Stoneleigh in Lower Merion and McCormick Farm near Mechanicsburg. Never before have preserved properties been threatened by school districts wielding the formidable powers of condemnation, experts in open space tell me.
“These are real aberrations,” said Andy Loza, executive director of the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, which represents nonprofit groups charged with keeping Stoneleigh and McCormick Farm from being developed. “I can’t recall in the past 17 years any other school district looking to condemn any conservation-protected lands.”
“It could set a precedent [in which] others may feel that other conservation easements are in jeopardy,” said Vince DeFilippo, a Cumberland County commissioner. This is only one reason he opposes what the district is trying to do along Carlisle Pike in fast-developing Silver Spring, Pa.
“Is this a precedent that we really want to set, that these preserved areas could possibly be taken?” said Lindsay Varner, community outreach coordinator with the Cumberland County Historical Society. “It begins to get people asking the question ‘Why should I bother to put my land into conservation?’ ”
A very good question. And one with potentially grave implications.
Cumberland has condemned McCormick; Lower Merion has only threatened to, but said as recently as a few days ago that it still had no firm alternative in hand to spare Stoneleigh — only a tentative one that would still require that nearly seven acres of Stoneleigh be taken.
Tens of thousands of people have signed a petition opposing the taking of Stoneleigh. It recently opened as a free-of-charge garden to the public.
Community opposition is strong in Cumberland, too. That district is in a court battle after condemning 108 acres of the McCormick Farm for a middle school. It’s in a wide-open valley just outside of Harrisburg, amid many other large parcels apparently for sale on the open market.
The Lower Merion district is threatening to seize up to all 42 acres of Stoneleigh, longtime estate of the late John Haas, of the Rohm & Haas chemical fortune, for a middle school and ball fields. That move comes in a congested suburb of Philadelphia. (One of Haas’ sons, David, is a member of the board of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the company that operates the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com.)
To say that Lower Merion has no other choice is, on its face, laughable. The district is so affluent that one of its own residents sued it over its vast surplus. It’s hard to imagine its private-market or even other eminent-domain options have been exhausted.
“We don’t know of any other example of this, in which the entirety of a property under conservation easement has been condemned,” said Oliver Bass, an executive with Natural Lands, a nonprofit to whom the Haas family transferred ownership of Stoneleigh.
“It would be an extraordinary step for a school district to take,” said Bass, whose group is fighting the Cumberland move, too.
I drove past McCormick a few days ago. To say that Silver Spring is ablaze with development would be putting it mildly.
The farm, which had been in the McCormick family since the 1700s, is a vast blanket of fields and trees along Carlisle Pike. It faces a car dealership across the way. You see a bunch more dealerships as you motor along. Tenant farmers worked the land until not too long ago.
I wasn’t granted an interview with the superintendent. But when I got to the school administration building a short drive down the road, I was amazed. It’s on a parcel of land so large it shares space with a high school, a middle school, and so many fields the vastness is breathtaking.
Given the abundance of land out there, you wonder if it’s overdeveloped with a disregard for efficiency. Which is all the more reason to protect these easements.
“If school districts and others can just go around and liquidate lands that have been carefully and thoughtfully conserved, we’re going to impoverish future generations,” Loza said.
The hope for both properties: public opposition.
“I’ve seen the public reaction in the court of public opinion,” Loza said of Stoneleigh. “They do not have an easy path.”
Nor should they.