Pattye Benson

Community Matters

Will Lower Merion School District Use Eminent Domain to take Natural Land Trust’s Stoneleigh Estate: Say No!

This story is almost impossible to comprehend but sadly it is true!

Through the wonderful generosity of John and Chara Hass (Rohm and Haas Company, specialty chemical manufacturer) and their children, the family’s Villanova estate Stoneleigh (c. 1877) was donated in 2016 to Natural Lands Trust. The wonderful estate turned garden is set to open its gates to the public starting Sunday, May 13.


Photo by Richard Ilgenfritz, Digital First Media

Now days before the gates are open to the public, the Lower Merion School District is looking at the estate and gardens as a possible site for a new middle school – property to be taken by eminent domain. Initially, LMSD was looking at purchasing 6 acres (by Villanova Law School) for the middle school but the entire 42 acre Stoneleigh estate is in jeopardy of condemnation!

Natural Land Trust is not interested in selling any of the Stoneleigh property to the LMSD. According to the Main Line Times, the Trust’s attorney has stated, “the Natural Lands will not entertain the board’s offer to purchase a portion of Stoneleigh Garden and that the Natural Lands will oppose any effort by the board to take any portion of Stoneleigh by eminent domain,”

I’m struggling with the takeover of private property — because Lower Merion School District needs more sports fields — it is just plain wrong! With great generosity, the Haas family donated the land for public use, how can Lower Merion School District do this? Doesn’t the Natural Land Trust have rights? Not my idea of how elected officials should “lead by example”!

Go to Stoneleigh’s website to learn more about the property. And please consider signing the petition to Save Stoneleigh from Condemnation! Lower Merion School District needs to be stopped!

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In a recent comment on Community Matters, Ray Clarke (local resident and member of Open Land Conservancy Board of Directors) points out that the attorney writing to the Natural Land Trust on behalf of Lower Merion School District is none other than Ken Roos of Wisler Pearlstine, LLP — this is the same Ken Roos representing T/E School District. As Ray noted, Roos billed T/E $60K in April alone!

I certainly hope that the potential eminent domain condemnation by Lower Merion School District of a Natural Lands Trust historic estate doesn’t give our T/E school board any ideas. The many new land development projects in our school district has meant more families moving into the area. As a result, there has been discussion over the years about whether a new elementary school is needed to meet the possible student enrollment increase. The condemnation of Open Land Conservancy property in T/E School District is not an option!

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  1. Thank you, Pattye, for drawing attention to this issue. Donors to Land Trusts do so with the intention that their land be preserved as a community resource in perpetuity, and the bar to overcome those wishes must be very high indeed.

    Let’s hope that TESD continues to wisely avoid the worst excesses of LMSD. One positive indicator would be to move away from a solicitor who sent such a threatening letter to Natural Lands Trust.

  2. The solicitor sent the threatening letter with the blessings of the school board or he wouldn’t have sent it.

    Better to look at school boards who hire and employ solicitors like Ken Roos.

  3. This is a Public Relations Nightmare for LMSD. It is beyond comprehension how they couldn’t see that writing a letter like this and so close to opening Day, Mothers Day, wouldn’t bring public scrutiny to a District already embroiled in angry battles with the public.

  4. Ray Clarke,

    While I agree the School District should never try to take this land for a future Middle School, I did have an opportunity to read the letter (which is posted on the Stoneleigh Website) and I am not clear why you would characterize it as being “such a threatening letter.”

    The letter is addressed to a lawyer in the Law Firm that represents Stoneleigh and is nothing more than a request to inspect the property at a date and time convenient to the Land Trust. It contains no threats whatsoever. If anything, it looks like a standard boilerplate letter that would be sent by a government entity such circumstances.

    Hopefully, the School District will come to its senses and look elsewhere for a place to build its school.

  5. I have to agree with Local Resident. Seemed like a letter that has to be sent as a matter of formality.

    Having read all the links in the story, it also seems that the 6+ acre lot that they originally were looking at is set aside for future development. What kind of development would be allowed on that plot? If true, I would hope that a school board or any other public entity would look at that lot as part of their due diligence for any project they are undertaking. Doesn’t mean they will buy/use/take it. But, they have to look at all alternatives, don’t they?

    1. Read the information on Natural Lands Trust website. This characterization by LMSB is inaccurate. Neither the Haas family nor Natural Lands Trust ever had any intention that this parcel be developed, and it is an integral part of the property. I walked this parcel on Opening Day, and it is where the Haas family pet cemetery is located with generations of German Shepherds. It also contains dozens of 150+ year old trees which would need to be clearcut if LMSD installed a building or athletic fields here. LMSD created this problem by letting developers crowd too many multi family units in too little space. They should have had the foresight to set aside land for future township needs. Stoneleigh should not be sacrificed due to lack of planning on the School Board’s part.

  6. Normalizing this offensive action by the School Board will not make the public feel more accepting of it. Citizens will not buy into this logic and lower their standards to accept what is wrong. We will never accept this as having to look at all the options. This is not an option and it isn’t normal to send a threatening letter so that a public garden that citizens worked very hard to make happen can be turned into a sports arena.

  7. NLT just sent a letter to LMSD in an attempt to “set the record straight” after an email sent by the District to LMSD parents on May 11th.

    Among other things, the NLT letter states:

    – There is only one parcel—Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden—and it consists of the main house (designated a Class II Historic Resource under the Lower Merion Township Historic Resource Inventory, and which is subject to a facade easement) and one single garden throughout 41.7 acres of land.

    – Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden is subject to conservation and preservation easements going back to 1996. All of Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden has been entrusted to Natural Lands to act as its public steward. If Natural Lands accepts land for preservation, that land is preserved.

    and last, but totally not least, there is the right to protect the environment enshrined in the Pennsylvania Constitution:

    – Separate and apart from any interference with other trusts, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, interpreting Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution places upon each and every District Board member a fiduciary duty to act as a trustee to “conserve and maintain” for the citizens of the Commonwealth, including, “generations yet to come,” “a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.” Taking Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden—or taking a part of it that is intrinsically tied to the continued health and viability of the whole—turns a blind eye toward the very obligation of environmental stewardship that the Pennsylvania Constitution has imposed upon you for the benefit of all Pennsylvanians and future generations.

    My expectation is that any lawyer that represents Tredyffrin Easttown and other school districts would have the wisdom to counsel their clients not to go down such a path.

  8. I take no sides in this matter, but it looks like all the above arguments against the condemnation of the property do not apply in a PA court room.

    At those sessions, many people have raised the argument that the taking of the farm could undermine years of effort and millions of dollars invested in open space preservation around the state. But those public policy arguments are largely absent from the Natural Lands’ court filing, likely because in a condemnation proceeding the issues before the court are largely limited to whether the taking party “is guilty of fraud, bad faith or has committed an abuse of discretion.”

    Here is the news article:

  9. So now LM is going to purchase the Islamic Foundation property with the caveat that they are able to secure additional land for fields. So they are still looking at 7 acres of Stoneleigh. What I hadn’t realized is that the properties are not even connected. There is a whole road (Clairemont) with houses on both sides between the 2 properties. So unless the district is going to take some additional property they will still have to bus the kids to the playing fields. Geez – go find someplace else already.

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