Park or townhouses? Montco town is fighting over its largest undeveloped parcel.
Upper Gwynedd wants to use eminent domain to preserve the 33 acres. The owner wants to develop some of the land for age-restricting housing.
In September, Upper Gwynedd was ready to deploy eminent domain to acquire the nearly 33-acre Martin Tract — the Montgomery County township’s largest remaining undeveloped parcel.
But an unexpected and well-organized opposition campaign involving the tract’s owner, tenants on the property, other local residents, and politicians led the Upper Gwynedd Board of Commissioners to delay the decision to take the land.
“What’s happening here is part of a bigger national picture of government overreach,” said Dave Kinion, an HVAC contractor and longtime Martin Tract tenant who has become the face of the opposition.
“I didn’t want any of this political stuff. I’m not a media hound,” he said. “I just want to fix air conditioners and run my life.”
Township officials contend that eminent domain became an issue before last November’s local election only after being politicized by opponents claiming that Upper Gwynedd was seeking to evict the tenants and “waste” public money by creating unnecessary parkland.
Although the township’s five municipal parks contain a total of 211 acres, “we don’t have a lot of other open space near the Martin Tract,” board member Liz McNaney said. “We want to serve the communities in that section of the township.”
For now, the future of the Martin Tract’s rolling meadows, dense woodlands, and expanse of wetlands along the Towamencin Creek remains unsettled. The South Broad Street side of the site includes a landmark Victorian house where Kinion resides with his wife, Jeannette, as well as a smaller residential building with four tenants.
A banner across the front porch of the larger house — COMMISSIONERS, DO NOT CONDEMN OUR HOME — speaks volumes. As does a 232-page comprehensive plan completed in August to guide township development through 2040, which designates the Martin Tract as recreational space. This controversy suggests that the community conversation about open space and density will continue.
“The comprehensive plan represents three years of us having conversations with anyone who wanted to be part of the planning process,” said Denise Hull, president of the five-member board of commissioners. “Some residents say their voices were unheard, and this pause [in eminent domain] is about us having more conversations.”
Settled by Welsh Quakers beginning in the late 17th century — Gwynedd means “fair land” in Welsh — what is now Upper Gwynedd Township comprises eight square miles and has 17,000 residents, according to the 2020 census. That’s a population increase of 1,520 since 2010 and a more than 19% overall rise since 2000. The township also boasts a sprawling campus that houses a divisional headquarters of Merck, the pharmaceutical giant.
“A lot of Upper Gwynedd is very built up, and there is still development happening,” Hull said. “More passive recreation space would provide something different and help define our township. It would enhance Upper Gwynedd.”
The family for whom the Martin Tract is named has owned the property for three generations and until recently had a collegial relationship with local government, said Tom Martin, 74, from his New Hampshire home.
“Five years ago, we began downsizing, and we approached the township,” he said, speaking for himself and his older brother Daniel, who owns part of the tract. “My biggest regret is that we didn’t sell the land back then. It would have been very lucrative.”
“But we got tied up trying to accommodate the township,” he said. “Our discussions with them didn’t bear fruit. The next thing we know, they’re moving to condemn the property.”
Pennsylvania code provides guidelines for taking property by eminent domain, also known as condemnation, by municipal governments or other public entities. Towns need a compelling reason to take the action, and owners must be paid the fair market value for their property. An appraisal commissioned by Upper Gwynedd set the Martin Tract’s value at $2.9 million. The township plans to seek a second appraisal, as well.
“Eminent domain represents an egregious use of township authority,” Martin said. “You shouldn’t rush into these things — you work with people. That was the tradition in our community.”
McNaney said the Martin Tract “has been on the township’s radar” as a potential passive recreation area since a 2005 update of Upper Gwynedd’s Open Space Preservation Plan. The 2040 comprehensive plan, conducted in collaboration with the Montgomery County Planning Commission, includes conceptual renderings of a trail system on the site.
The township was concerned that Martin was interested in selling part of his property to a developer for construction of what McNaney described as “120 townhouses and the highest density anywhere in Upper Gwynedd.” She also said the township repeatedly sought to meet with Martin before putting the eminent domain measure on the September meeting agenda.
“We never had a plan to kick anybody out of their home,” McNaney said. “Mr. Martin is scaring residents that the big bad township is going to come in. The fate of [the tenants] is not up to us. It’s up to Mr. Martin.”
In November, McNaney and Hull, both Democrats, won reelection to the board of commissioners despite lawn signs all over town denouncing eminent domain. Fred Hencken, one of the Republicans who had sought a seat, said Monday that acquiring the Martin Tract through condemnation makes no economic sense for the township, due to the likelihood of a legal battle on top of the purchase price.
He also noted that Martin has in the past offered to give part of the property to the township.
In an letter to McNaney last April, Martin wrote: “We understand and support the township’s desire for open space. That is why we came to you with a proposal to create permanent open space — two years ago — and at no cost to the Upper Gwynedd taxpayers. It would have given the township the 13 acres on the corner of Broad Street and Allentown Road in exchange for the construction of high-end, age-restricted townhomes on the remaining residential acres ... age-restricted townhomes fill a need in the community ... while at the same time contributing tax revenue.”
McNaney said the area offered is mostly wetlands. While suitable for a butterfly garden, she said, it would not readily lend itself to other public use.
Campaign literature for the McNaney-Hull reelection campaign said grants and surplus funding ― not tax increases — would pay for the purchase. They also insisted that the township had been negotiating “in good faith” with the Martin family.
Although no meeting with the owner has been scheduled, township officials are set to meet Thursdaywith Martin’s chosen developer for a portion of the tract.
“We don’t have any concept for the property at this time,” said Sam Carlo, director of land acquisitions for the Pulte Group. The Atlanta-based company built a single-family home development called Gwynedd Ridge several years ago on a separate parcel also owned by the Martin family.
Said Hull: “If we have a small group of residents who feel we haven’t listened to them, let’s explore some more. There may be some areas we did not consider. And we do want to move forward.”