Phila. Business Journal: “Stoneleigh fight heading to Harrisburg”
June 6, 2018
By Allison Burdo
Three local state lawmakers are preparing to introduce a bill that would prevent Lower Merion School District, among other organizations throughout Pennsylvania, from exercising powers of eminent domain on land that falls under a conservation easement, like the Stoneleigh property the tony suburban school system is eying for its next middle school.
“The Lower Merion School District has decided to use eminent domain to condemn privately owned land permanently preserved by conservation easement, over the objections of many residents of the community,” said Rep. Warren Kampf (R-Montgomery/Chester), the lead sponsor of House Bill 2468, in a statement. “This bill will do what most people thought would have happened to all preserved land.”
The bill, which also counts Reps. Marcy Toepel (R-Montgomery), Kate Harper(R-Montgomery) and a dozen others as sponsors, follows a storm of negative reaction from community members and preservation advocates who say LMSD should look elsewhere for its expansion plans and leave the 42-acre Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden untouched.
LMSD leaders previously sent a nonbinding letter of intent to purchase seven acres from the natural preserve, which opened to the public just last month. While school district leaders initially said they were only interested in that small portion of the property, LMSD Superintendent Robert Copeland and board of directors president, Dr. Melissa Gilbert, later said all 42 acres could be considered.
Currently headed to the Local Government committee, the bill would adjust the state’s Eminent Domain Code to require any government agency to obtain Orphans’ Court approval before using eminent domain to take permanently preserved land.
Despite the pending litigation’s potential to upend one of several land acquisition options for Lower Merion, the school district is leaving Stoneleigh on the table as an option.
“The District is aware of this proposal. At this time, all options remain under consideration as we seek the best solutions for our students in light of the challenges posed by our rapidly increasing enrollment,” LMSD spokeswoman Amy Buckman said in an email.
Other properties under consideration by the school district include a portion of the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary campus in Wynnewood; Friends Central Lower School site at 228 Old Gulph Road, Wynnewood; and the Islamic Foundation site at 1860 Montgomery Ave., Villanova.
The Islamic Foundation site, near Stoneleigh, poses construction challenges, plus it could soon be designated a historical property. The Friends School has already said it is not interested in selling, while the Seminary, according to LMSD, has been unresponsive to the district’s overtures. Current eminent domain parameters prevent LMSD from condemning The Friends School and the seminary sites.