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Philly wants to buy 136 acres in Tinicum Township to expand PHL airport

The City of Philadelphia wants to acquire 136 acres in Tinicum Township, Delaware County, as part of a long-range expansion of the Philadelphia International Airport.

But the purchase price of the parcels, known as the Henderson Tract, is the subject of a dispute and litigation in Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.

City Council has introduced a bill to acquire the land, which is owned by the Henderson family and the related businesses of the late Wilbur C. Henderson, and his son, David Sr., who died in 1999.

"They want to sell, but they wanted a whole lot more money than the airport was willing to pay," said James Tyrrell, the city's chief revenue officer for the Division of Aviation. "The property is currently in litigation, so I really can't talk about value."

Kevin Feeley, spokesman for the Henderson Group, said the owners are not talking publicly about how much they want for the land. "They want the process to go forward," Feeley said.

On Sept. 8, five Henderson owners petitioned Delaware County Court to appoint a "board of view" to award "just compensation" for the acreage.

The owners — David C. Henderson Marital Trust, Wilbur C. Henderson & Son, and three other ventures — said the airport targeted the property for acquisition in 2006, but due to inaction and "exceptional circumstances," the property's value has been "destroyed," resulting in "a de facto condemnation," court documents alleged.

The owners said they have been deprived of the "beneficial use and enjoyment" of their property.

The city countered, in court papers, that the allegations are untrue and were an attempt to extract more money.

"The city has attempted to acquire the property through amicable negotiations," according to the city's response. "The attempts to acquire the property amicably failed because the plaintiffs demanded compensation that far exceeds the value set by the city's appraisers."

The city has conducted studies and evaluations, including two "value appraisals." The acreage includes two vacant buildings, Ambassador I and Ambassador II, which used to be called the Airport Business Center.

The owners, in court documents, blamed the city for the loss of tenants and revenue. The city responded that the owners made no efforts to lease the vacant spaces.

"They filed a de facto condemnation suit," Tyrrell said, in an interview. "What it means is they are insinuating that we have already taken possession of it. I don't want to get into all the legal aspects of it. They are trying to force us to acquire it, but at their price."

In 2010, the Federal Aviation Administration approved a long-term expansion plan for PHL, including building a fifth runway along the Delaware River, where United Parcel Service now operates. At the time, the Henderson land was envisioned to be the new location for UPS.

But in later negotiations with Tinicum Township and the community, the city agreed to save 72 homes in Tinicum and to relocate UPS to where the International Plaza, the former corporate headquarters of Scott Paper Co., is today. The city bought the property for $90 million in 2015.

The 136-acre Henderson site, which the city would like to acquire to support future airport expansion, might be used for more cargo facilities, Tyrrell said.

"Based on the authorization that the Council gives us, we could move forward before this litigation process runs its course, either by amicable agreement or condemnation," Tyrrell said.