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Homeowners fight Lower Merion schools’ takeover of their property

The owners of a 10.6-acre property that district officials covet for playing fields have challenged the school board’s vote to condemn their land, claiming it thwarted a more lucrative sale to Villanova.

View of the Stoneleigh Mansion in the natural lands garden. The Lower Merion School District considered taking part of the garden by eminent domain but has now focused on a different nearby property whose owners are fighting the takeover.
View of the Stoneleigh Mansion in the natural lands garden. The Lower Merion School District considered taking part of the garden by eminent domain but has now focused on a different nearby property whose owners are fighting the takeover.Read more--- Jose F. Moreno / File Photograph

There’s yet another snag in the Lower Merion School District’s ongoing struggle to find playing fields for a proposed Villanova middle school it wants to open in 2023 — the same effort that last year riled residents over the fate of the new public garden at Stoneleigh.

Now, the owners of a 10.6-acre property near Villanova University that district officials want have gone to court to challenge the school board’s December vote to condemn the land, accusing district leaders of thwarting a more lucrative sale of the parcel to the university.

Michael Faherty, attorney for the owners of the tract, John Bennett, a physician, and his wife, Nance DiRocco, said the couple on Friday lodged a challenge in Montgomery County Court “reflecting overly aggressive and unconstitutional actions of the school district,” which has offered up to $9.95 million for the land.

In court papers, lawyers assert that the couple last year engaged in conversations with university president the Rev. Peter Donahue about a $12 million sale before school district officials went to Donahue to try to dissuade him from the deal and told him that they believed the site was worth roughly $8 million.

Faherty said Monday that while his clients want to see their property on County Line Road — site of a 20,000-square-foot 1920 mansion that has occasionally hosted Villanova events — sold to the university, they are willing to sell to the school district for $12.9 million. The district has balked.

Kenneth Roos, the district’s attorney, said a deal with the couple appeared to be in place last fall and “the agreement that they are now walking away from was the product of long and lengthy negotiations.” Roos also disputed many of the allegations in the court filing concerning the district’s conduct in the dispute.

The brouhaha has dogged efforts by the state’s wealthiest school district to cope with growing enrollment by building a third middle school on a Villanova site it agreed to buy from the Islamic Foundation Center that is too small and hilly for athletic fields.

Last spring’s initial plan for those fields — taking some or all of the 42-acre Stoneleigh property, which once belonged to chemical magnate John Haas and was just opening as a public garden — provoked anger among residents, who placed “Save Stoneleigh” signs in their yards, and eventually led to legislation in Harrisburg that blocked the idea.

Lower Merion’s subsequent plan — a 7.56-acre site on Spring Mill Road — collapsed when the district learned that wetlands would make it too expensive to develop. Before Christmas, the district voted on its third plan, which would put the ball fields on the County Line Road property and a smaller adjacent parcel on West Montgomery Avenue at an estimated cost of $13 million.

Friday’s court filing says that Bennett and DiRocco had a written agreement in November to sell the 10.6 acres to Villanova for $9.65 million — less than the previously discussed $12 million — and that school officials, after learning that, raced to vote on the condemnation without telling the couple, because the district would not have been able to use eminent domain with the university. Roos said the couple’s representative was told a day or two before the vote.

The filing maintains that school officials told Bennett and DiRocco after the condemnation vote that if they didn’t finalize a negotiated sale, which would allow the couple to lease the site until construction in 2023, they would have to leave immediately, and a granddaughter who lives with them might not be able to continue attending Lower Merion schools.

Roos said that in their initial summer 2018 negotiations, the couple asked to stay at the property until 2023 — for which they would not be charged rent — and for the granddaughter to be allowed to finish at Harriton High School even if she moved out of the district, and that the district agreed.

Insisting that a deal had been in place “but [the owners] changed their mind,” Roos said he didn’t know whether the same terms would be offered if the couple lose the court case.

Faherty said he believes that the court will find the seizure of the land unconstitutional because the need for the property is too far off, the property is larger than required for the fields, and the couple believe the district negotiated in bad faith.

Meanwhile, several township officials continue to question why the district is pressing for the new middle school on the western edge of the district when its greatest population growth is on the east side, bordering Philadelphia, and why there hasn’t been more exploration of the 75-acre St. Charles Borromeo Seminary site in Wynnewood.

“We are doing this on the wrong side of the township," said Daniel S. Bernheim, president of the Lower Merion township supervisors. Officials said that the seminary has planned to sell its land to Main Line Health but that the parcel is large enough to also accommodate a middle school.