The Sentinel: “CV unveils McCormick Farm plans during crowded information session”
May 25, 2018
By Zack Hoopes
Local residents turned out in force Thursday night for Cumberland Valley School District’s information session on the use of eminent domain at the McCormick Farm.
The session answered at least one of the lingering questions regarding the school district’s ongoing court battle to take the agricultural preserve – that question being what exactly the school district intends to do with the land, if it acquires it.
Aside from the specified 1,400-student middle school, the conceptual plan unveiled Thursday includes athletic fields, hiking trails and an agricultural education center featuring multiple gardens as well as a barn and livestock pasture.
CV Superintendent Fred Withum promoted the idea of the new site being a community gathering point for the district’s four municipalities.
“Cumberland Valley School District has really become the village green for all four townships,” Withum said. “This would be a long-term project beyond just the educational component.”
But the district’s presentation to a room of at least 200 residents was not a slam dunk, due in part to the district’s presentation of some information that was either out-of-date, or highly selective.
A portion of the school district’s presentation was dedicated to making the point that the McCormick tract is not eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, based on a survey of the property done in 1988.
However, the district appeared to be unaware that the property was recently re-evaluated, and is now eligible for listing on the register, according to an opinion issued May 22 by the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office to the Cumberland County Historical Society.
Although the McCormick Farm dates to 1762, the state preservation office based its findings on the 1930s redesign of the house and farmstead by Harriet Gilbert McPherson, described as “the Harrisburg area’s first female architect” who re-worked the property as a “rural retreat” for the wealthy McCormick family.
Cumberland Valley School District is not seeking to condemn the eight acres that the house sits upon, but is seeking the remaining 108 acres of the 116-acre farm tract. The state’s recommended designation boundary is “the entire farm property associated with the house and farmstead at the time of the work of architect Harriet Gilbert McPherson.”
Those 108 acres, as of March, are technically in the hands of Cumberland Valley School District following the filing of a Declaration of Taking in the Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas. But the school district does not yet have full rights to the property.
The McCormick Farm, which runs along the north side of Route 11 just west of Hogestown, has been for sale at various times since 2007 by the estate of its most recent owner, Ui Ung Lee. However, the school district cannot simply buy the land and turn it into school facilities.
In 1983, the heirs of the McCormick family donated the land to Natural Lands Trust, a nonprofit environmental group. In 1986, Natural Lands sold the property so that it could continue to be farmed, but maintained easement rights to any further development, meaning that the property must remain a farm preserve.
The only way to take this easement, and thus obtain the rights to develop the land into a school, is condemnation through the court. Natural Lands Trust has challenged the school district’s filing.
On Thursday, district officials attempted to explain their rationale for the taking within the school district’s overall expansion plans.
“When you really get down to looking at this, at the very core, it’s a determination of what the best use of land is for our community,” Withum said.
The school district has frequently cited its enrollment numbers, which are increasing at a fast clip. Growth at the elementary levels — kindergarten through fifth grade — is over 4 percent per year, Withum said, although this tapers off at the high school level due to students leaving for early-college or vo-tech programs.
“We have no intentions of building a second high school,” Withum said.
But the district needs more elementary and middle school space. There are existing middle schools at Good Hope and Eagle View, but the district plans to put those sites to other use and replace them with the Mountain View Middle School, located on Bali Hai Road, and the prospective middle school at the McCormick Farm.
Although the district does have two parcels adjacent to its main campus, these are too small to fit a new middle school, said Mike Willis, the district’s head of business and support services.
Eagle View, although it could be expanded, “would be a difficult addition,” Willis said, and would be better used as an elementary school after the new middle schools are complete.
It would cost $10 million to fully convert Good Hope to a middle or elementary school, and it has outstanding stormwater management issues that make it difficult to change the building’s footprint, Withum said. The building would be better used as temporary space, and potentially as space for high school job-training programs.
This puts the district in the position of working on both the McCormick plans and Mountain View Middle School, which is currently under construction. The two schools are less than 10 minutes apart via the Carlisle Pike and Lamb’s Gap Road.
This led residents to question why Mountain View wasn’t simply built to hold more students. By the district’s own estimates, the school will be at maximum capacity within just two years of opening.
“There’s an art and a science to enrollment projections,” Withum said. “You build something off an average but when you really look at it, nobody is ever exactly average.”
The Bali Hai Road project, which will contain Mountain View middle and Winding Creek elementary schools, was designed “with the hope that someone would finally turn the spigot off. … Had enrollment leveled or even slowed, that would have been better on our part and we would’ve had time to stop and breathe,” Withum said.
The appeal of the McCormick Farm property was due in part to being adjacent to the Carlisle Pike, reducing the cost of building out road and utility access, Willis said. The Bali Hai Road project required the district to install a costly traffic circle at the Lamb’s Gap Road intersection, he said.
But if this was the case, residents asked why the McCormick Farm was not acquired in 2013, when the Bali Hai Road project was first conceived. Further, the McCormick Farm property was up for sale by the Lee family at that time, as opposed to the land along Bali Hai Road, where residents had to be forced to sell through the courts.
The explanation for this was that the Bali Hai Road site is further east than the McCormick Farm, and thus within the growth area of Hampden Township that was the district’s main source of new enrollments at the time.
“We recognized the growth was coming east to west, and it made the most sense to attack that first,” Willis said. “The need was for that border school to move students back [into Hampden] and [the McCormick Farm project] is a preemptive to move forward knowing that development is coming west.”
While Mountain View Middle School will technically be in Hampden Township, the actual distance between it and the McCormick Farm site, which is in Silver Spring Township, is negligible.
Lamb’s Gap Road, which provides access between Bali Hai Road and the Carlisle Pike, is about two miles farther east on the Carlisle Pike than the McCormick Farm. One must then drive roughly two miles north on Lamb’s Gap Road to reach Bali Hai Road. This means that for traffic coming down the Carlisle Pike from the east end of the school district, by far its most populous area, the two schools would be equidistant.
Several points at Thursday’s presentation caused verbal outcry from residents, particularly with regard to statements made by Michael Cassidy, the school district’s attorney, who attempted to make an “opinions versus facts” presentation regarding opposition to the McCormick Farm taking.
Beyond the incorrect “facts” regarding the farm’s historic register eligibility, Cassidy also maintained that “there’s nothing special about the soil on that property.”
The next slide on the district’s presentation showed the county’s soil map, indicating the MCormick Farm contains Class I & II soils under the state’s rubric, considered prime farmland of public preservation interest.
Withum said the point of the map was to show that most of the farmland in the center of Cumberland County is classified as such, making it difficult for Cumberland Valley to find open land that isn’t considered prime farmland.
“They all have the same quality of soils, that’s the point,” Withum said.
Cassidy also maintained that all preservation easements, both private easements such as Natural Lands Trust’s holdings and easements held by a government-backed entity such as the Cumberland county Agricultural Preservation Board, are not considered perpetual. Thus, violating the easement is not as an egregious action as opponents have characterized it, Cassidy said.
“As a matter of law, every farm that has been preserved under the county and township farm preservation programs is subject to condemnation,” Cassidy said. “If you’ve been told it is in perpetuity, you’ve been misled. In perpetuity does not mean in perpetuity when it comes to the law.”
Cassidy’s explanation was that even an easement held by a sovereign entity can be violated, as long as all the sponsoring government agencies agree to it.
But this characterization is unfair, according to the agencies involved, since they cannot fully void an easement. The easement is still perpetual in that it has no termination date, although exceptions can hypothetically be made in cases of extreme public need.
“Mr. Cassidy’s description was very incorrect,” County Commissioner Vince DiFilippo said after the meeting.
Although they do not have legal power over a privately held easement, Cumberland County, Silver Spring Township and the state Department of Agriculture have all vocally opposed Cumberland Valley School District’s action.
The school district’s presenters also faced questions over allegations of a conflict of interest, as detailed in The Sentinel’s report last week.
The district provided a letter, dated Sept. 28, 2017, in which Silver Spring Township details to PennDOT the possible need for an access road between the Carlisle Pike and the Grayhawk Landing housing development. That road, as previously reported, is depicted in several documents as crossing the McCormick tract.
The letter shows that “the request to put a road through the prop pre-dates any interest from the school district,” Withum said.
However, school board member Robert Walker is an attorney for Grayhawk Landing’s developer, Jeff Taylor of Spinnaker Property Management.
As detailed previously, Taylor said he would prefer to proceed without the additional access road. But Silver Spring Township officials have said the road may become a necessity if Taylor continues to build out Grayhawk Landing as suggested in recent plans, especially given the limited access to the site that currently runs behind the Bobby Rahal Honda and Acura dealerships.
“It’s of no interest to the district, it’s between the township and the developer and the owners of Bobby Rahal, and that’s for them to work out,” Cassidy said. “If it actually comes to a question of the board approving a road across the property, then it would probably be prudent for Mr. Walker to recuse himself and not vote on that issue.”