Year after year as so many Main Line properties have been sold off and carved up, Stoneleigh, a beautifully wooded property in Lower Merion Township, has survived. This bucolic swath of land – 42 glorious acres of amazing natural gardens that just last week opened to the public– is the former home of the Haas family. A lot of people recognize Stoneleigh as the place where the iconic rabbit woodcarving by wood sculptor Marty Long stands on County Line Road. The house, classified as a Tudor Revival mansion is ringed with shrubs including Magnifica"Winterthur" azaleas, and the grounds are home to 10 of the largest of their respective species in the entire state.
In 1996, a conservation easement was placed on the property by the late John and Chara Haas with Natural Lands. It was their wish to preserve the property. In 2016, their adult children donated the property, their birthright, to Natural Lands, and transferred the conservation easement to the Lower Merion Conservancy. This was to ensure preservation for future generations and not to fall prey to a developer's ax and bulldozer.
But now Stoneleigh is facing a grave threat to its very existence: the Lower Merion School District.
In the fall of 2017, the school district considered taking over Ashbridge Park in Rosemont as a way to deal with its growing enrollments. That didn't work in the school district's favor, as it is a park for the benefit of the public.
With 2018 came a list of properties School Superintendent Robert Copeland was interested in, including Stoneleigh. According to Natural Lands, the district is interested in condemning a 6.9-acre parcel so it can build new playing fields. But it also sent a letter to Natural Lands saying it wants to inspect the rest of the 42-acre Stoneleigh garden "in anticipation of a potential condemnation of all or part of the property." At a recent Federation of Civic Associations meeting, residents asked Copeland if it was true he was considering eminent domain. He responded "absolutely."
Eminent domain is an ugly business. It is defined as the right of a government to take private property for public use by virtue of the superior dominion of the sovereign power over all lands within its jurisdiction.
As a community activist, I was one of many who successfully stopped an attempted eminent domain for private gain taking in Ardmore years ago. This would not be eminent domain for private gain at Stoneleigh; it would be eminent domain for public purpose, except Stoneleigh already has a public purpose.
I lived in Lower Merion Township for over 30 years. I watched the township evolve from a lovely place to a densely populated area with rampant infill development, traffic, and parking issues.
The Lower Merion School District is a completely separate entity from Lower Merion Township. However, it is the township that has approved infill development over the years, and it is my opinion it has a certain degree of culpability here.
I believe the school district is the embodiment of arrogance in its presumptions that any land it wants should be for the district either in total or in part via eminent domain.
Stoneleigh, Natural Lands, and the Haas family deserve our support.
The public can help by signing the Natural Lands petition and writing the school board. Dr. Melissa Gilbert, president of the school board, and Superintendent Copeland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and cc email@example.com. The next school board meeting is Monday, May 21, at 8 p.m. (Only township residents can speak, but others can attend.) Check the Stoneleigh Facebook page for more information, or contact Natural Lands. There is also a Save Stoneleigh website.
Carla Zambelli Mudry is a Chester County-based blogger and freelance writer. She is a former resident of Lower Merion Township.