In a new twist on six months of controversy that have jolted a Main Line suburb, the Lower Merion school board moved Monday night to acquire 7.56 acres on Spring Mill Road in Villanova for playing fields for a new middle school to be built nearly two miles away.
The plan means that Lower Merion is abandoning its divisive proposal to seize land for the athletic fields from the new public garden at Stoneleigh – an idea that angered local conservationists and led to legislation in Harrisburg intended to thwart it.
Also on Monday, the township commissioners approved changes meant to facilitate the district's plan to build the new middle school at the current 22-acre site of the Islamic Foundation Center at 1860 Montgomery Ave. in Villanova.
"We are delighted that the threat to Stoneleigh is finally over," said Molly Morrison, president of Natural Lands, which renovated and oversees the garden. "Many thousands have visited and fallen in love with Stoneleigh since it opened last spring. Now, we can be assured that it will remain a place of beauty and joy for generations to come.
"We are particularly grateful this Thanksgiving week for the tens of thousands from across this region and the country who joined the Save Stoneleigh campaign, the state legislature that increased protections for eased lands, Lower Merion Township, and the countless others who helped secure Stoneleigh's future."
There's no immediate timetable for opening the middle school, which would be Lower Merion's third for grades 5-8 and address a sharp rise in student enrollment. District officials have said the Islamic Foundation site is too small and hilly to hold the sports fields required for a new school, but there were few good alternatives in the neighborhood.
The plan approved Monday acquires four parcels of residentially zoned land at Spring Mill and Morris Avenue, which is just under 2 miles from the planned middle school. Officials on Tuesday said there is at least one home on the tract, which are costing the district roughly $5.2 million.
District leaders had announced in May that Stoneleigh – a 42-acre Villanova estate that once belonged to the chemical-industry billionaire John Haas and was just opening as a public garden and community refuge – was a preferred site to seize some land, if not the entire property, for athletic fields. The proposal led some 40,000 people to sign a petition against it, and yard signs calling for Stoneleigh to be saved sprouted on lawns across the Main Line.
In late June, Gov. Wolf signed a bill aimed at blocking eminent domain seizures of land under a conservation easement – legislation that Montgomery County lawmakers had drafted with the goal of keeping the Stoneleigh parcel intact.
Even with the Stoneleigh controversy officially behind it and Lower Merion officials stating in a news release that the new middle school "is closer to reality," the plan will likely not be without controversy.
Scott Zelov, a Lower Merion township commissioner who had opposed the Stoneleigh plan, said he already had some concerns about the new zoning for the Islamic Center. Zelov said the building is allowed too much "impervious surface" that could cause drainage problems.
"This site is an historic mansion, is small, sloped, remote, has little field space, is not walkable, and on a high traffic road," he added in an email Tuesday morning. "It isn't near the majority of students in the school district. Even the Montgomery County Planning Commission called a school at this site 'one of the few least-walkable schools in eastern Montgomery County.'"