Gardens vs. Schools
By Alex Jones
Stoneleigh: a Natural Garden—the Villanova estate turned rustic public green space profiled in Grid’s May 2018 issue—is the most recent addition to the 36 public gardens that earned Philadelphia the moniker of America’s Garden Capital.
But the uniquely beautiful green space wasn’t even open to the public yet when Natural Lands executive director Molly Morrison found herself sending an impassioned plea to the garden’s contact list—with the words “Save Stoneleigh” in the subject line.
The historic, 42-acre property is now at the center of a conflict between two greater goods: Natural Lands, the nonprofit conservation organization that owns and manages Stoneleigh, and the Lower Merion School District, one of the better-funded school districts in the country.
LMSD is seeking to build a new school in response to growing enrollment numbers projected over the next several years.
“[I]n order to continue to provide a high-quality [education] for every child, the district needs more classroom and co-curricular space, in a township where very little space is available,” wrote Amy Buckman, director of school and community relations for the LMSD, in an email to Grid.
Back in March, Natural Lands received a letter from the school district expressing interest in inspecting a 6.9-acre portion of the property for possible condemnation in order to build fields for a new school through eminent domain rights.
“It was completely unexpected,” said Morrison. Natural Lands responded in the negative.
Then, the school district sent a letter expressing interest in inspecting all 42 acres. That’s when Natural Lands called on its followers for help.
The same question would arise in this situation, Morrison said, if the Haas family still owned the land, as the preservation easement existed for about 20 years before the property was transferred to Natural Lands. “The difference in this case is that Stoneleigh is open to the public,” she explained. “So the public benefit has been amplified and expanded exponentially, because people now have direct access to the property and our educational programming, free of charge.”
The LMSD has looked at other sites that could work for an additional school in an area in which large tracts like Stoneleigh are rare. One, a property owned by the Foundation for Islamic Studies that includes the historic Clothier Mansion, is currently up for sale and adjacent to Stoneleigh.
Expanding the existing schools is also an option, but some parents oppose that plan, arguing that their children would be underserved in these “megaschools.” According to the LMSD website, the district’s average classroom size is 21 students. LMSD’s interest in the 6.9-acre parcel—which is designated as an “additional development area” in the conservation easement, meaning that the owners of the property have the option to sell it for residential development—would be for playing fields adjacent to that property.
“The school district continues to refer to those 6.9 acres as developable and not part of gardens,” said Oliver Bass, director of communications at Natural Lands. But neither of those things are true, he said.
“The entirety of Stoneleigh is covered by a conservation easement. When Natural Lands owns something, it’s for preservation, not development,” Bass explained. The area in question is home to a state champion ironwood tree and was specifically designed as the “Meadow Vista” by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
“Until and unless another option becomes available, there are no other options,” said the school district’s solicitor, Kenneth Roos. “It’s something that the residents of Lower Merion are going to be given full opportunity to weigh in on. It’s a policy decision by the school district.”
But Morrison and her team are determined to keep Stoneleigh open, untouched and accessible to all. The real question is whether the school district is entitled to seize this parcel of preserved land under eminent domain.
“That’s a determination that will happen in the courts,” said Morrison; Natural Lands is fighting a similar legal battle in Cumberland County. “We will defend Stoneleigh against a taking by the school district.”