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‘They almost need therapists’: How the fight to save Stoneleigh brought Pa. zombie pols back to life, too | Maria Panaritis

Pennsylvania's normally do-nothing legislature did something – and FAST – when they saw a gorgeous Main Line estate suddenly under threat of condemnation. Here's how it happened.

It was here, at a January party inside the Villanova estate Stoneleigh, where key Pennsylvania lawmakers apparently caught the bug to save the public estate from condemnation by Lower Merion school district officials. This photo was taken Tuesday, May 1, 2018. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
It was here, at a January party inside the Villanova estate Stoneleigh, where key Pennsylvania lawmakers apparently caught the bug to save the public estate from condemnation by Lower Merion school district officials. This photo was taken Tuesday, May 1, 2018. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff PhotographerRead moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

I got lucky that Dulcie Flaharty took my call this week. This was the woman whose retirement party at Stoneleigh helped make a miracle happen last week in Pennsylvania's notoriously soulless General Assembly. I had to know how it had happened, because this may just have saved the region's newest public garden.

Consider for a moment some background.

Harrisburg is where hope and action go to die. These people do not get much done. It's their calling card.

"You can have the best idea, the best legislation," in the words of land conservation advocate Andy Loza, "but that doesn't guarantee passage. The General Assembly is a byzantine, complicated creature."

And yet, these same Pennsylvania lawmakers flipped out when they learned one of the suburbs' most beautiful conserved open spaces might be gobbled up by the Lower Merion School District. They are not, they would soon reveal, mere zombies of partisan dysfunction.

The Republicans who have turned Harrisburg gridlock into a daily spectacle moved so quickly over the last six weeks to pass a law that people are asking themselves if it was a dream. The law aims to save Stoneleigh — and other preserved land like it — from a potential hostile takeover by any school district wielding the power of eminent domain.

I had heard there had been some mystical juju at work at the retirement luncheon on that misty winter afternoon back in January. That it had led to lightning-fast action by the legislature over the last few weeks, ending with Gov. Wolf's signature on Sunday. Together, they turned the former Haas family estate from a very endangered public garden to a substantially less endangered one.

"It's the magic," Flaharty told me, "of seeing Stoneleigh."

Influential lawmakers set foot for the first time on Stoneleigh for Flaharty's retirement party. She was stepping down as an executive with Natural Lands. The nonprofit recently took ownership of the showstopping 42-acre Haas estate. Flaharty had worked tirelessly for years to preserve open space with the help of public officials.

The property was a few months away from opening to the public but was nonetheless breathtaking. The Haas family had placed a conservation easement on it years earlier to forbid development. Then they donated it outright for use, in perpetuity, by the public at large.

A place like that, with that kind of good karma flowing through it, leaves a mark. It did just that on lawmakers this past winter.

Their visit was such a moving experience they could not fathom, months later, that the district wanted to seize the former homestead of heirs to the Rohm & Haas chemical fortune. (One of them, David Haas, is a member of the board of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the company that operates the Inquirer, Daily News, and

"We were lifting up the curtain," Flaharty recalled, "and they were just going to get the first peek at what this community was going to be."

In speech after speech, VIPs extolled Stoneleigh as an example of land conservation policy at its finest.

Loza was there, too, as were Republican State Reps. Kate Harper and Marcy Toepel, both of Montgomery County, and others. All had come because of Flaharty's firm, yet respectful, relationship-building efforts over decades.

"They never would have been at the table at Stoneleigh," Loza said, "unless they had been talked to through the years about the value of the organization and what it has been doing."

Lesson No. 1: Build relationships with people when you don't desperately need anything from them.

Lesson No. 2: You'll get what you need from such people during crunch time if you first follow Lesson No. 1.

As word broke in May that the Lower Merion district was eyeing Stoneleigh for condemnation in the name of building a new middle school, the lawmakers from that retirement party became immediate, powerful allies in the fight against the looming threat.

Flaharty remembers Toepel's reaction when the pair heard the news at a ribbon-cutting ceremony the day the district's plans made headlines.

"I went up to her immediately and said, 'Can you believe it?' And she was already like, 'I cannot believe that this is happening.' Because she had been" to Stoneleigh, Flaharty said.

Toepel's district is so far away from Stoneleigh that if not for the retirement party, she would have had no other reason to ever visit the estate.

"It was just one of those serendipitous things," Flaharty said.

Harper, an attorney and conservationist whom Flaharty dubs the "Queen of Green," began drafting a bill and got approval from House leaders to shepherd it through her legislative committee. Harper was kicking drafts around to advocates within days. She and Toepel co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Warren Kampf of Chester County.

"I couldn't believe it was happening that quickly," Flaharty said. "I saw Kate at a retirement party three weeks ago. She said, 'We're going to get it out. We're going to move it fast. We have to save Stoneleigh.' "

Harper told my colleague Kathy Boccella that in 17 years in the state House, "that was the fastest I've seen anything move."

Why, then, don't these people get more done?

Flaharty's theory: "They almost need therapists working with them."

It shouldn't take a retirement party to pass good laws. But a good one, it turns out, can bring even zombie politicians back to life.