Today's Daily News editorial, analyzing a judge's decision to stop Fox Chase Cancer Center from taking city parkland to expand, also marks the beginning of a new intensity the editorial board will be bringing to scrutiny of the parks. Now that the parks and recreation departments will be merged, we're concerned how well and how quickly that gets done, so over the next few weeks, we'll be looking closely at this important issue.
A JUDGE BECOMES CITY'S BEST PARK ADVOCATE
BURHOLME DECISION RESTS ON AN EARLIER, WISE STATE LAW
GIVEN THE choice between hundreds of jobs for city residents and a vibrant neighborhood park, even park lovers in or out of city government might hesitate - especially in this economy.
But if yesterday's Orphans' Court decision in the Fox Chase-Burholme Park case stands up on a promised appeal, it's a choice that's not the city's to make.
The decision - a ruling that denies Fox Chase the right to take over a portion of Burholme Park to expand its facilities - is yet another guarantee that parkland won't be sold off by greedy politicians. That was the widely touted fear used against a city charter change, approved Nov. 4, to abolish the Fairmount Park Commission.
And it further undermines the defense of the supposedly apolitical commission as a better protector of parkland than elected officials. The commission supported Fox Chase Cancer Center's request to expand on 19.4 acres of Burholme Park, even though residents of the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood strenuously objected.
In his ruling denying the lease, Judge John W. Herron cited "the public-trust doctrine" enshrined a century ago in Pennsylvania.
Herron wrote in his 61-page opinion, "So long as a community or neighborhood activity uses dedicated park land, the City is required to hold such land in trust for their use."
After nearly five years of controversy and negotiations, it's as simple as that, said the judge.
Apparently beside this central point are the details of the case:
The nationally recognized Fox Chase Cancer Center needs to expand and brings great benefit to the city, and city officials acted responsibly in trying to make the best deal.
Leasing the land would mean breaking the will of Robert W. Ryerss, who bequeathed it to the city in 1905 to be used as parkland "forever."
Attempts to acquire parkland to "swap" for the land in Burholme Park were unsuccessful.
Tenth District Councilman Brian O'Neill maneuvered to have Fox Chase pay millions to the city as part of the agreement, including $ 4.5 million to be used on "capital expenditures" in his district that did not have to be parkland at all.
According to the law, which was cited 100 years ago in a similar decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, if it's dedicated parkland that is still used as a park, it has to stay that way.
We'll leave to others the questions of why neither the city nor the Fairmount Park Commission did not at least raise the question of the "public-trust doctrine" in this long-running issue. We want to focus on the future of Fairmount Park as its governance structure changes.
Herron said the law wouldn't prevent the city from selling or exchanging parkland that no longer was viable. To that end, it's essential that the commission established by the Nov. 4 referendum to advise the new Department of Parks and Recreation establish clear criteria for determining viability and for deciding if and how to pursue divesting land.
Protecting city parkland should be the soul of the city's park policy. The Fox Chase deal, while perhaps well-intentioned, undermined that soul. We're grateful not only for one wise judge, and many active neighbors, but for the commonwealth's foresight 100 years ago that has succeeded in protecting us from ourselves. *