The rowhouse neighbors, many of them elderly or retired, who challenged the prestigious Fox Chase Cancer Center's plans to expand into Burholme Park have won another round in the courts.
Wednesday afternoon, a Commonwealth Court panel ruled that the center cannot go forward with a plan to lease a portion of the park, which is part of the Fairmount Park system, for a $1 billion expansion.
"We are constrained to conclude that the Appellants [Fox Chase Cancer Center] are not entitled to the relief they seek here," the decision signed by Commonwealth Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer said.
"We in no way question the importance of the contributions that Fox Chase makes to the city, the commonwealth, and the general public," Jubelirer wrote in the 20-page decision.
"Furthermore, like the city, we hope that Fox Chase can find a way to expand its facilities such that it does not need to leave the city or the commonwealth."
Several neighbors and a group called Save Burholme Park had filed suit in Orphans Court after the city agreed to an 80-year lease of 19.4 acres of the 65-acre park to the cancer center, at Shelmire and Central avenues.
"It's a great relief," Mary Tracy, executive director of Scrub, a public-space advocacy organization, said yesterday. "It's a decision that will help protect parkland in Philadelphia."
Timothy N. Spreitzer, a spokesman for Fox Chase, said officials will explore all options, including an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
On Dec. 9, 2008,opponents of expansion won a first-round ruling in Philadelphia Orphans' Court.
The suit was filed there because Robert Waln Ryerss, son of railroad tycoon Joseph Ryerss, donated the family farm and mansion to the city in his 1895 will.
Orphans' Court Judge John W. Herron ruled that the state's public-trust doctrine barred the lease agreement:
"Simply stated, so long as a community or neighborhood actively uses dedicated parkland, the city is required to hold such land in trust for their use," Herron wrote.
Further, Herron wrote the expansion "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."
Yesterday, Samuel Stretton, the lawyer who represented the neighbors, said he was happy with the decision but concerned that the court did not address the public-trust doctrine.
Instead, the Commonwealth Court based its ruling on its interpretation of the Dedicated and Donated Property Act, which permits the selling of public land under extremely critical financial circumstances.
"I'm very pleased with the verdict," Stretton said.
"We've won in this case, but I'm worried about other parkland in the city and across the state that might still be sold if a city decides it is too much of a financial burden."
Jean Gavin, a cancer survivor who walks her dog in Burholme Park almost daily, said she was thrilled. She said the cancer center should include the park as part of a treatment for patients.
"Use the park, walk through the woods," Gavin said. "There is something about nature that is healing all by itself."