It's a $47 million dilemma, and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia could be a long way from an answer.
For two years, the archdiocese watched developer Bruce Goodman scramble to work out a deal to build on 213 church-owned acres in Delaware County, to which he won the rights in 2014 with a $47 million bid.
His plan, however, faced colossal pushback, first from residents opposed to clearing forest for hundreds of homes and big-box stores. Marple Township commissioners then denied his request for zoning changes, calling his development too dense. County planners agreed.
Goodman submitted a plan of smaller scale. Still, the multimillion-dollar project fell apart. The archdiocese put the tract back on the market.
Goodman last week filed court papers for a potential lawsuit against Marple to recoup the more than $7 million his attorney says he has spent on the land. Although the archdiocese hopes other bidders will come courting, the church's problems could be far from over.
If Goodman could not develop one of Delaware County's largest and most coveted parcels, real estate experts say, it is unlikely anyone can.
"If the township is so restrictive in its zoning, [the archdiocese] is going to be really limited in how they can market this property," said John Nivala, a professor emeritus at Widener University's Delaware Law School.
Without a change in zoning, he added, "economically, practically, this can't be developed."
With Goodman's deal now dissolved, the land's value could drop significantly, experts say, and with it the bids. A price of $47 million - even in a fierce bidding war - is too steep for a parcel with few development possibilities, they said, especially in a commercial real estate market that the Federal Reserve warned last month may have grown too fast.
"If I were a developer, I would be cautious for obvious reasons," said Asuka Nakahara, a real estate lecturer at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "But if I was really crazy about the site, I'd try to figure out what was actually doable from the township and the residents.
"And I would guess that it would be a lot less than Goodman's plan."
To make a deal work, experts say, a developer would need to persuade the township to sign off on a rezoning request, transforming the land from its current status of "institutional" and mostly single-family residential to one that would allow some commercial development.
By keeping a portion of it as institutional, Marple's commissioners, all seven of whom are Republicans, limit the land to uses that serve an educational, health, social, or similar purpose - for example, a hospital or a school.
But none of those can turn a big profit for a developer with millions on the line, experts say.
"If [Goodman] could have worked it out, he would have by now," said John McMahon, a Chester County real estate broker of record. "If there's that much contention around this, I think Goodman would do well to stay away."
The church has remained silent on whether new buyers are interested. If they are, they can expect intense resistance from hundreds of residents.
The conflict underscores just how dramatically 213 acres could reshape Marple Township and its finances. For residents, saving the swath would prevent more development in a county with just 15 percent open space, compared with neighboring Chester County's nearly 27 percent.
For developers, building on the archdiocese's untouched tract would create top-notch real estate, a destination for shoppers, renters, or businesses just off of I-476. For township officials, hundreds of acres would land on the tax rolls after decades of tax-exempt status.
According to plans Goodman submitted to the township last year, he expected his development to generate nearly $1 million in township profit. An additional $2.4 million would benefit the Marple Newtown School District, he projected.
Marple officials could not be reached last week for comment. Goodman declined to comment. Archdiocesan spokesman Ken Gavin said the archdiocese wants to complete a transaction quickly. The proceeds, he said, would bolster its trust-and-loan fund, an investment fund for parishes that in 2013 was short $80 million.
One group has openly expressed interest in buying the land: local residents.
This month, including at a news conference Monday at the Delaware County Courthouse, dozens of residents petitioned county officials to float a $100 million bond to buy and preserve the 213 acres.
But even that, experts say, could be as much of a long shot as getting a high bid from a developer.
To float a bond, residents from across the county could expect to see a bump in their taxes in order to foot the bill, a potentially difficult sell in a county notorious for high taxes and high poverty.
"You would have to convince Delaware County residents that this is a benefit to everyone," Nivala said. "You might be able to for places like Marple or Springfield Township, but I bet there are people in other places that would not buy this at all."
Residents such as Ken Hemphill, who grew up across from the Marple plot, have said that the bump in taxes would be "minuscule" and would be used for more than just the archdiocesan land, which Hemphill says should be valued at a significantly lower price than Goodman's. Instead, he said, much of the money from the bond could be used to maintain and protect other parks and areas of open space in the county.
According to a study that Hemphill provided, prepared by the Trust for Public Land, a national open-space advocacy group, a $100 million bond would cost about $36 annually for a Delaware County home valued at $200,000. That estimate, the group said, assumes the bond would have a 20-year maturity.
"I know times are tight for people, but this is an investment in our home county," Hemphill said. "This is about refurbishing existing parks, establishing pocket parks, and giving them street trees and planting new trees in their old parks. It's a win-win for everyone."