Wynnewood neighbors buy up meadow - preserving history and wildlife

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At the meadow are the Lower Merion Conservancy's Patty Thompson (left) and Rita Auritt. "It's a big deal to protect property like this in such a developed area," Thompson said. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)

A 4.4-acre meadow wedged among elegant stone homes in tony Wynnewood is all that is left of the Toland family farm, which once sprawled across 300 acres from the Main Line railroad tracks almost to Montgomery Avenue.

Over the last century, the farm was whittled away piece by piece to create a new residential development, though as recently as the 1970s, cows grazed in an open pasture, and chickens scurried around a barnyard just blocks from Wynnewood Shopping Center.

Then last year, the matriarch of the family, Polly Toland, decided to sell her own home, adjacent to the meadow, and move to a retirement home. The Tolands decided the time was right to get rid of the final piece of the family legacy.

"This 4.4-acre parcel is the very last of the original estate," said Scott D. Cook-Sather, who lives next to the meadow on Aubrey Road.

He and his neighbors heard from a real estate agent that a developer was interested in buying the land and building as many as eight houses.

"It had been open space forever," said Cook-Sather. "The thought of any development was scary."

So they got together and came up with a brainstorm: What if the neighbors bought the tract and created an easement with the Lower Merion Conservancy that would protect the land from future development?

"We had a wonderful opportunity to preserve it. And we have," said Cook-Sather, a spokesman for the group that calls itself the Pasture Partners.

Eleven people from five families, four of them neighbors, united to save the meadow - or most of it. The fifth owner is related to one of the families and plans to build a house on about half an acre of the land.

Some of the families have lived in the area for 40 years or more and remember when the meadow was part of a working farm, said Cook-Sather, who was elected spokesman so the others could remain anonymous. He said the four neighbors couldn't afford the property without including the fifth who wanted to build.

"It's going to be a very small house, a green building on half an acre," Cook-Sather said.

While he declined to reveal the selling price, he said, "As you can imagine, this property came at quite a premium because of pressure to build on it."

For the Lower Merion Conservancy, which works to preserve open space in the tightly packed affluent township of 58,000 people just across City Avenue from Philadelphia, the easement was a coup. Just 5.8 percent of the township is public parks or privately protected land.

"This is really special for us," said interim executive director Rita Auritt.

Patty Thompson, the group's conservation director, said it was unusual to have so many people working together to save one piece of land. In the last 20 years, the conservancy has placed easements on 20 properties that total close to 100 acres.

"It's a big deal to protect property like this in such a developed area," Thompson said. "It creates pockets of open space for birds, wildlife, green space."

The township's largest protected parcel is 19 pristine acres around Dove Lake, the property that Thomas Eakins depicted in his famous painting "The Bathers." The smallest is a half acre.

At the first meeting, with about 15 neighbors of the Wynnewood meadow last summer, "it felt like we were miles away from an end point," Thompson said.

"The property had to be purchased, everybody had to agree to the terms of the easement," she said. "Sometimes, it's a challenge working with one family. It's really unusual to have such a high level of cooperation and collaboration. At the end of the day, they all wanted to preserve that property."

The estate was founded in 1691 by Robert Owen - the magistrate in service to William Penn, and a state assemblyman, according to the Lower Merion Historical Society website - and he built a house on the property. His descendants acquired more ground and built more houses. In the early 1800s, Owen Jones, a colonel in the Union Army, inherited 104 acres and rebuilt the home into a grand Victorian mansion called Wynne Wood, with gardens, pools, and outbuildings.

By 1903, Edward and Robert Toland had bought 93 acres of farmland and sold off lots, reducing the farm and mansion to 30 acres. The mansion was finally demolished in 1939. All that remains of the once-vast estate is the barn, on Aubrey Road.

Now, the neighbors plan to work with the Natural Lands Trust of Media to restore the overgrown tract to a wildlife-friendly meadow. Under the easement agreement, said Thompson, they can even bring back "up to 1,000 pounds of animals."

"The neighbors really are sensitive to capturing that pastoral-farm aspect of the property," she said. "I know one of the neighbors adjacent to the property has chickens. They want to maintain that farm quality."

 


Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or kboccella@aol.com.