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Judge rejects cancer center's expansion plan

Tim Kearney was first in line yesterday to get a copy of a court ruling on Fox Chase Cancer Center's plan to expand into Burholme Park in Northeast Philadelphia.

Tim Kearney was first in line yesterday to get a copy of a court ruling on Fox Chase Cancer Center's plan to expand into Burholme Park in Northeast Philadelphia.

Kearney, a member of a citizens' group called Save Burholme Park, emerged into the hallway with the document and let out a yell.

"I just started screaming," Kearney recalled later.

It was a scream of delight: Philadelphia Orphans Court Judge John W. Herron had ruled that the law "protects every square foot" of the land Robert Waln Ryerss donated to the city in his 1895 will.

"Simply stated," Herron wrote in a 61-page decision, "so long as a community or neighborhood actively uses dedicated park land, the City is required to hold such land in trust for their use, . . . and is required to maintain these open spaces as public parks."

For Kearney and other activists who had battled the hospital's plan, the decision was gratifying.

"We had come to the end of a four-year battle that had taken us many hours, a lot of dollars and an enormous amount of work," he said.

Herron's ruling was a blow to Mayor Nutter and other politicians who had supported the Fox Chase expansion.

After years of negotiation, the city agreed in March to lease 19.4 acres of the 65-acre park off Cottman Avenue to the cancer center for 80 years - with options to renew.

But lawyer Samuel Stretton had filed a lawsuit on behalf of neighbors and taxpayers opposed to the park deal three years ago. It had been put on hold until council approved the lease earlier this year.

Opponents of Fox Chase's plan argued that the hospital could have chosen land in other areas of the city, such as the abandoned Byberry Hospital or at the former Philadelphia Naval Base.

In his ruling, Herron noted that Fox Chase, at Shelmire and Central Avenues, is "an internationally renowned hospital with state of the art facilities and a treasured private resource for the City."

But he added that the center's $1 billion expansion plan was slated to take part in five stages over 20 years.

It "would result in the construction of as many as 18 large buildings between 4 and 9 stories high through the very center of the lush park, uprooting old growth trees, destroying vital recreational areas and irrevocably altering the unique character of this singularly beautiful park land and open space," Herron wrote.

Tim Spreitzer, a Fox Chase spokesman, said the cancer center was disappointed in the decision and would appeal.

"We . . . are committed to continuing to serve as one of the nation's outstanding comprehensive centers and we believe that it is in the best interest of all of our current and future cancer patients to pursue all reasonable options for expansion," Spreitzer said.

He said the center would continue to argue that the expansion "will create thousands of both temporary and permanent jobs, expand Philadelphia's tax base and keep Fox Chase at the forefront of cancer research and treatment."

Doug Oliver, a spokesman for Mayor Nutter, said the administration also "believes the decision could have a devastating impact" on Fox Chase's expansion plans.

"We remain committed to this project and will do all that we can to ensure the expansion and their [Fox Chase's] continued presence in Philadelphia," Oliver said.

Stretton, the lawyer for the neighbors opposing the expansion plans, said he felt "very happy" about Herron's decision. "It's like Christmas coming early," he said.

"For the last 50 years, the policy of the United States has been business over the environment," Stretton said. "That has to change."

He called Judge Herron's decision "very courageous" and "very well-reasoned."

"You don't have a lot of judges who will stand up to the city, the attorney general and the economic powers and do the right thing," Stretton said.

Some observers compared the case to the fight over the Barnes Foundation by Merion officials and residents who had argued in Montgomery County Orphans' Court that the world-class art collection had been willed to Merion and shouldn't be moved to Philadelphia.

Kearney said he doubted if top officials at Fox Chase who live in Chestnut Hill or well-heeled suburbs would permit a hospital to build in open space they use.

"This was just pure classism," Kearney said.

"I've hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, and I know the value of trees and fields and open space," Kearney said. "That part of the city [where Fox Chase is located] is densely packed."