They've accused county council members of failing to protect open space, and of ignoring their pleas to save a sprawling swath of archdiocesan-owned land in Marple Township.

They've drafted Facebook posts and sent emails, and stormed council meetings.

This week, Delaware County Council members answered the accusations by saying: You're wrong.

In a 10-page memo, the council gave its most comprehensive defense of its measured response to the open-space dustup that has rattled the community in recent weeks.

"While County Council understands the desire for some residents of Broomall and its vicinity to do 'whatever it takes' to preserve the Sproul Road property owned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia," council members wrote, ". . . incurring $100 million or $125 million of county debt is not a balanced or reasonable solution to that problem."

Petitions by residents across the county to save the 213-acre tract - and purchase it with portions of a $100 million bond - have intensified since the archdiocese returned the tract to the market.

On July 1, the archdiocese announced it had pulled back from its deal with Jenkintown developer Bruce Goodman, who had proposed building hundreds of town homes and big-box stores on the land.

Goodman won the rights to it in 2014 after he offered $47 million in a fierce bidding war among developers. To sweeten the deal, he put down a $5 million nonrefundable deposit. Goodman last week filed court papers for a potential lawsuit to recoup that money.

But his plan faced tremendous pushback. Residents pleaded that the swath be saved. County planners and Marple commissioners said the plan was too dense, and the township rejected Goodman's requests for zoning changes.

With the plot back on the market, local residents have asked the council to put a referendum question on the November ballot allowing voters to decide if they want to finance the land's purchase. But their demands for a $100 million bond, council members wrote, "does not strike the proper balance between the desire to preserve open space and fiscal responsibility to the taxpayers of Delaware County."

Throughout the memo, council touted its open space program, including the 37.5 parcel acquired last month in Darby Borough and Upper Darby Township, part of the Little Flower Manor property. Delaware County has preserved about 17,000 acres of open space in total.

Still, that accounts for just 15 percent of total land, compared to Chester County's 27 percent.

The last half of the memo was an explanation of why a bond referendum would not work, citing sizable increases to the county's current debt and taxes for residents. In addition, the council stated, under Pennsylvania's Open Space Lands Act, only municipalities - not counties - can impose "open space taxes" by voter referendum.

Yet, council said in the memo, it was open to identifying ways to "possibly preserve" the archdiocesan land. No specific details were included for how that would be accomplished.

Residents in favor of saving the land said Thursday there are other alternatives the council should explore to finance the land's purchase.

Council "should have a sizable contribution, but the rest could be public money and state money - maybe even federal money," said Ken Hemphill, a Concord resident who has been involved with Save Marple Greenspace, the local group that has rallied to save the land.

"People get what they pay for," Hemphill said, "and if people aren't willing to pay a little bit extra to take open space off the development market and protect it, they're going to pay for it other ways, like traffic."

"We should be doing everything in our power to keep this from getting worse," he said.

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