Delaware County Council moved Wednesday to use eminent domain to take control of 213 mostly forested acres known as the Don Guanella tract owned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and a private developer and turn it into the county’s largest park — a move church officials say caught them by surprise.
The council introduced two ordinances that will allow it to proceed with acquiring the tract, actually two separate parcels. The ordinances, once formally adopted most likely in July, will allow the county to take the properties in return for their fair market value with the ultimate price to be negotiated with the owners.
The developers would be allowed to make an appeal on the value, which would then be determined in court. The total current assessed value for both properties together is $31.6 million.
“What we’re doing with this ordinance is just a culmination ... of years and years of work of many people who are in this room right now who have worked tirelessly to see this place is protected,” said council member Elaine Schaefer.
Schaefer said preservation of the land will not only provide open space for residents, but help with overall environmental issues, such as preserving trees for climate change mitigation, stormwater management, and protection for two streams that flow into Darby Creek.
Council member Kevin Madden said it was “rare” to be able to protect something that “will have such lasting impact” for generations.
The tract, equivalent in size of 161 football fields, has been mired in controversy since 2014 when plans were first submitted to develop it for housing and retail. Marple residents pushed back and helped scuttle the first proposal.
A second deal emerged in 2017 involving the archdiocese, under financial strain, and Marple Glen LLC, owned by Carlino Commercial Development based in Conshohocken. That plan would have created housing, retail, and institutional space, but one version would have required that a majority of the land be clear-cut, according to officials.
However, the Marple Township Board of Commissioners recently rejected the proposal, leaving an opening for the county to step in.
The tract is prized by the county and some residents because its forests, slopes, and streams are ready-made for public open space in the already heavily developed 10-square-mile Marple Township. The tract also contains the shuttered Don Guanella Village, formerly home for men with developmental disabilities.
The archdiocese owns the 124 acres that contains the village and has an agreement of sale on the land with Carlino, which is assessed at $24.2 million. The remaining 89 acres is held by Marple Glen Developers and is currently assessed at $7.4 million.
Kenneth Gavin, a spokesperson for the archdiocese, said earlier Wednesday that the county’s move took church officials by surprise.
“We had no prior knowledge of the county’s consideration of taking the Sproul Road property through eminent domain until late yesterday when we were contacted by the Delaware County solicitor’s office,” Gavin said. “We are in communication with the county but have no position on the matter at this time.”
Gavin said that the archdiocese currently uses some of the Don Guanella facilities for retreats and office space, and that local municipal agencies have also used the property at times. The former residents were shifted starting a decade ago to other facilities.
A representative from Carlino could not be reached immediately for comment.
The council’s ordinance still needs to be formally adopted at a public hearing and second reading expected in July. If the ordinance passes, the county would begin eminent domain proceedings as soon as July 19.
Madden, the council member, said earlier in the day that he did not have a firm amount the county might pay for the tract but said officials expect state and federal money will be available and that interest rates are currently very low if it needs to borrow.
He said action is needed now because Delaware County has the lowest amount of open space preserved among nine counties in the Philadelphia area, including Philadelphia and three in South Jersey.
Council member Christine Reuther addressed comments she had received asking why, as part of an open space deal, the county was also taking the front of the parcel that includes old buildings. She explained that eminent domain proceedings do not allow the county to take only a portion of the property, and that officials understand “maintenance” of the buildings will be needed.
Though designating the land for a park would also remove the potential for much-needed housing, especially affordable housing, proponents believe parkland would benefit the community.
In fact, residents have long used the land as de facto open space. The flip of county government from Republican to Democrat in 2019 likely helped push the possible use of eminent domain to the forefront.
A number of residents spoke during Wednesday night’s meeting in favor of the county’s move to acquire the property.
Joe Inverso, president of the Crum Creek Neighbors, echoed sentiments of the crowd when he said residents have fought for up to seven years.
“We just wanted to thank each and every member tonight and we have a debt of gratitude to all of you,” Inverso said.
And Oliver Bass, president of Natural Lands, a regional land conservancy based in Media, said in a statement that the pandemic showed how important open space has become.
“This desire to spend time in the outdoors demonstrates how vitally important preserved open spaces are to the well being of local communities,” Bass said. “The addition of Don Guanella to the county’s park system will expand recreational opportunities and preserve one of the largest remaining natural areas in the area.”