Stoneleigh garden may be saved from Lower Merion school district by new law
The legislation successfully pushed by three suburban lawmakers and signed by Gov. Wolf within a matter of weeks would prevent government entities from seizing land that is under easement without court approval.
Inspired by the uproar over the Lower Merion School District's push to seize a sliver of land from a newly opened Stoneleigh garden, Pennsylvania lawmakers have moved with unusual speed to enact a law to make such seizures more difficult.
The legislation, successfully pushed by three suburban lawmakers and signed by Gov. Wolf within weeks, would prevent government entities such as school districts from seizing land that is under easement without court approval.
"I've been here 17 years, that was the fastest I've seen anything move," said Rep. Kate Harper (R., Montgomery), a co-sponsor of the House legislation with Reps. Warren Kampf (R., Chester) and Marcy Toepel (R., Montgomery). "We had to make it move. We were very much afraid if we left for summer recess, the Lower Merion School District would condemn the land. We pushed and pulled and wiggled to do everything we can to keep it going to approval."
The bill was introduced by Kampf on June 6, and voted through the House on June 19 and through the Senate three days later. Gov. Wolf signed it into law on Sunday.
Kampf said he hopes the measure stops Lower Merion in its tracks.
"I hope they'll think about some other way to achieve their ends," he said.
The law requires that in order to get approval from Montgomery County Orphans' Court to seize land, the district has to prove that there was no suitable alternative for its plans to build a middle school and athletic fields .
"Honestly, it surprised me that this wasn't already the law," said Kampf.
Superintendent Robert L. Copeland and School Board President Melisssa Gilbert did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
In addition to Lower Merion, the legislation was prompted by another school system needing a new middle school, Cumberland Valley, which is eyeing 108 acres of privately owned farmland in Mechanicsburg.
But it was the public outcry over Lower Merion's interest in the newly opened Stoneleigh that enraged residents and officials of Natural Lands, one of Pennsylvania's oldest and largest conservation organizations, which has spent the last two years creating the garden.
Days before the 42-acre garden opened on May 11, Lower Merion informed its owners that it was considering seizing all or part of the property, even though it is protected in perpetuity by conservation easements. The land was part of the Villanova estate once belonging to the chemical-industry billionaire John Haas, whose estate donated the property to Natural Lands.
Two weeks ago the school board signaled that it might only be interested in a 6.9-acre slice of Stoneleigh to be used for athletic fields after it signed an agreement of sale to buy the nearby Foundation for Islamic Education. That property could accommodate a school but not a track and playing fields.
Conservation-minded residents packed school board meetings wearing T-shirts and carrying signs, and signed online petitions demanding that the district look for an alternative site.
"The overwhelming message from the community was, save Stoneleigh and don't allow a condemnation of a property that was, first, an eased property and, secondly, a charitable gift and, third and not least important, was a community gem," said Molly K. Morrison, president of Natural Lands, which received the property as a gift in 2016.
Opposition came from township officials as well. Commissioner Scott Zelov called the new law "a much needed step forward for protecting preserved land." But he said there's still a lingering threat from the Lower Merion school board. "The school board should withdraw their interest in any of Stoneleigh, and nearby Ashbridge Park as well," he said.
Maurine McGeehan, executive director of the Lower Merion Conservancy, which holds the easement on the garden, called the new law "an extraordinary success." She added: "More than anything it shows the enormous support that there is for protection of conserved land in Pennsylvania."
The school district had looked at two other properties, Friends' Central School and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, but both now say they are unwilling to sell. Meanwhile, a solution to overcrowding in its middle and elementary schools seems as elusive as ever. If it can't find a new place to build, the district has said it would expand existing schools, which many parents have said they do not want.
Lower Merion solicitor Ken Roos said that the district is aggressively exploring other options and that Stoneleigh "has ever only been a last resort." However, if those alternatives don't work out and the district decides it wants to take a portion of the garden, "we wouldn't expect to have difficulty" getting court approval.
Others aren't so sure. Harper, who previously chaired the Montgomery County Lands Trust, said she doesn't think the district would win because "there are reasonable alternatives." However, she added, "the school board has shown amazing persistence" in the face of opposition.
Morrison said she hopes the swift and bipartisan action by the legislature and governor will persuade Lower Merion to take Stoneleigh off the table.
"Not just because of the legislation, but also because it's been so overwhelmingly derided in the community," she said. "Honestly, I won't be breathing easy until it's no longer on the list for acquisition."