Lower Merion eyes land for new middle school, but part of Stoneleigh could still be seized

The Lower Merion School District hopes to purchase a Villanova tract for its new middle school — a move that could save most of the stately Stoneleigh garden.

Under a tentative agreement announced at a school board meeting Monday night, the district would pay $12 million to buy a 22-acre property on Montgomery Avenue from the Foundation for Islamic Education. If approved, the deal would eliminate the district’s plans to seize the entire 42 acres of Stoneleigh, a proposal that had angered conservationists.

The district would still consider condemning 6.9 acres of the garden for athletic fields, said district solicitor Kenneth Roos. The owners of Stoneleigh maintain that even a seizure of that size could hurt its character and disrupt the serenity.

“It’s the only option we’ve been able to identify” for the fields, Roos said Tuesday. But “it doesn’t have to be Stoneleigh. … It can be any location that can sustain fields.”

The announcement marked the latest development in the Main Line school district’s quest to find a location for a potential third middle school amid overcrowding concerns. Nearly 8,600 students were enrolled in the district at the start of the 2017 school year, and that number could surpass 9,300 in the next decade. The district’s plans for a new fifth- to eighth-grade school became controversial in April when its officials told owners of Stoneleigh that it was considering seizing the property through eminent domain. The garden, which sits on the former estate of billionaire John Haas, was donated to the nonprofit Natural Lands in 2016 and opened to the public in May.

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
A painting in process from Dana McGahey is shown at the Stoneleigh Mansion.

The district also considered property owned by Friends’ Central School and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, but officials have said the Foundation for Islamic Education was the only willing seller.

Still, residents keep suggesting that the 70-acre seminary property would be an ideal spot for the school, Roos said.

In May, Lower Merion officials met with representatives from the seminary and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to discuss the possibility, Roos said, but the seminary intends to use the entire tract for at least the next five years. So Roos said that option was off the table.

Camera icon CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
A seminarian at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary strolls the walkway to the Theology Building in April 2017 through a stand of trees.

“Basically we were telling everybody to stop talking about that property,” Roos said. “That’s not a viable option.”

The agreement to buy the Foundation for Islamic Education land, which is too steep for athletic fields, does have some contingencies. For one, the district is asking that the Clothier Estate in the middle of the property not be designated as a Class I Historical Resource. The district would have to demolish that building in order to construct the new school, Roos said.

Camera icon MAGGIE LOESCH / Staff Photographer
This building, part of the Foundation for Islamic Education’s Villanova Academy for Honor Studies on Montgomery Avenue in Villanova is being considered for historic designation, which could get in the way of the Lower Merion School District’s plans to buy the property.

And the Foundation for Islamic Education, which uses the property for daily prayers, a weekend and day school, and other gatherings, has asked that it be allowed to remain at the property at least through the end of the 2018-19 school year, in part so as not to disrupt its students, according to Paul French, a real estate broker who represents the foundation.

The foundation had been “quietly looking” to sell and relocate to a yet-to-be-determined location for some time, French said, but was waiting for the right offer. Over the past few years, the property has garnered interest from many home builders and nursing home companies, French said. The foundation liked the idea that the land could continue to be used as a school.

“It could be a good deal for all parties. Lower Merion has a need for another school,” French said. “They’ve gone through an exhaustive search … [and] it’s a great place for a school.”

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The Foundation for Islamic Education’s Villanova Academy for Honor Studies at 1860 Montgomery Avenue, Villanova, Pa.

Two Lower Merion parents, Xandra O’Neill and Lauren Fenning, wrote a letter in support of building a “creative and innovative” new middle school on the foundation property, and asked officials to reconsider any seizure of Stoneleigh. The letter, which was signed by hundreds of other parents, was read at Monday’s meeting and an edited version was published on Philly.com. 

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
The Stoneleigh natural lands garden at 1829 County Line road on Wednesday, May 30, 2018.

“Our schools are not just buildings, just like public gardens are not just open spaces,” the letter read in part. “These are environments for learning and growing; they are places where we gather and connect as a community. They are both important.”

Roos noted that the 6.9-acre Stoneleigh parcel that could still be seized was marked a “potential development area” in the conservation easement. Conservationists have said that taking even a small piece of the garden would damage its overall character. Natural Lands president Molly K. Morrison said last month that those acres serve as an “essential backdrop” for some of the garden’s most stellar views.

“Our reasons for defending that 6.9 acres are the same now as they were a month ago, the same as they’ll always be,” said Oliver Bass, Natural Lands’ vice president of communications and engagement. “It’s an area that is an integral and essential part of the gardens.”

Natural Lands still has questions about how traffic, lighting, stormwater management, and parking could be affected by the seizure. The community has “spoken with force” in favor of the garden with yard signs, letters to stakeholders, and an online petition that had amassed more than 27,000 signatures as of Tuesday.

“It’s also the case that adding a sports complex there would really impact the serenity of the place and the ecological function of the place,” Bass said.

Another location that could work for new athletic fields, Roos said, would be a section of Ashbridge Park, a 28-acre space on Montgomery Avenue in Rosemont. But, when first proposed this fall, that idea, too, received significant pushback.

Camera icon STEVEN M. FALK/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Ashbridge Park. Lower Merion School District was looking to build a school, or athletic fields, at a local park.

As for the tentative agreement, there is no timetable for when it could be approved, but the district is eager to move forward. District administrators initially said they wanted their expansion plan set up by the end of the 2017-18 school year.

“Decisions need to be made soon,” Roos said. “The clock is running out.”