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Lower Merion School District moves to seize land near, but not from, Stoneleigh

In the latest development in a long-running saga, the Lower Merion school board voted to use eminent domain to seize about 13 acres of land next to the community garden to create athletic fields for a new middle school.

A painting in process from Dana McGahey is shown at the Stoneleigh gardens in May.
A painting in process from Dana McGahey is shown at the Stoneleigh gardens in May.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

In a change of heart, the Lower Merion school board has moved to seize two parcels of land next to the Stoneleigh gardens in Villanova to create athletic fields for a new middle school.

During a special meeting Friday afternoon, the board unanimously approved using eminent domain to acquire 13.4 acres on adjacent sites at 1800 West Montgomery Ave. and 1835 County Line Rd.

Stoneleigh, a 42-acre community garden opened this year on the former estate of chemical-industry billionaire John Haas, sits at 1829 County Line Rd.

Oliver Bass, vice president of Natural Lands, which renovated and oversees the garden, said Sunday in an email that the grounds seized by the school district “lie directly adjacent to and share approximately 1,500 feet of boundary with Stoneleigh.”

It seemed last month as if the school district had abandoned the idea of seizing land from or around the gardens after the board voted to acquire 7.56 acres on Spring Mill Road in Villanova. For months, conservationists had spoken out against the threat of the district using eminent domain to acquire all or part of Stoneleigh, and state legislators in June responded to the controversy by passing a law that prevents government entities, such as school districts, from seizing land under easement without court approval.

Attempts to reach district officials Sunday were unsuccessful. Superintendent Robert Copeland said at Friday’s board meeting that the new properties were closer to the site of the future middle school, at 1860 Montgomery Ave., than the parcel on Spring Mill Road. He also said that officials discovered the Spring Mill Road site would be expensive to redevelop because it includes wetlands.

Scott Zelov, a Lower Merion township commissioner and critic of the plans for the new school, questioned in an email Sunday why the district needed to seize 13 acres and said: “Once again, the Lower Merion school board communicates poorly to Lower Merion township residents.”

Bass said: "As we learn more about the district’s plans, our priority will be to ensure that Stoneleigh remains a place of respite for the community and the region.“

The district also said in a news release that it had to act quickly to acquire the new properties because Villanova University had agreed to buy them. A university spokesman on Sunday declined to comment, and attempts to reach the property owners were unsuccessful.

The school district has said it needs to build the new school to address a rising student enrollment. In its news release, it described the new land as the “best available choice for fields for the 21st-century middle school.”

The district said it would spend about $13 million to acquire the two properties, and that construction would not begin until 2023, the year after the new middle school is scheduled to open.