Shame on the Lower Merion School District for even thinking about robbing the public of the gentle grace of Stoneleigh Garden, the 42-acre former Haas estate in Villanova.
The billionaire chemical family gifted the property to the public with the intention of making it a place where anyone could quietly enjoy nature.
But the district wants to condemn the land and turn all or part of it into the site of a new middle school to handle growing enrollment. The district failed to adequately plan for that rising enrollment, an obvious outcome for a township that permitted sprawl development. Now, in its arrogance, the school district wants to make the entire region pay for its mistakes.
The district also looked at taking the 28-acre Ashbridge Park, a walkable arboretum with a playground in Rosemont.
Instead of defiling these beautiful open spaces, the district should consider building up and not out. What about adding another story to an existing school? That’s what cities do. When land is scarce, they build up.
Leave the open space to everyone. Respect the wishes of the Haas family.
At their parents’ request, the children of John and Chara Haas donated the estate in 2016 to the nonprofit Natural Lands in Media. (Among them is David W. Haas, a philanthropist and member of the board of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com.)
Conservationists spent about two years lovingly adding more than 10,000 native plants and 250 trees to the garden to make it hospitable both to humans and local wildlife, including eagles and red foxes.
Less than a month before Stoneleigh’s public opening on Mother’s Day, the Lower Merion district launched its grubby power play, informing the nonprofit group that it wanted to take some or all the land by eminent domain.
It shouldn’t get an inch.
As the federal government retreats from its responsibilities to preserve and protect land, air, and water, the public is increasingly dependent on private conservation of open space.
In Pennsylvania, there is a growing interest in preserving privately owned forests. There are 11.6 million acres of private forestland under threat of being carved into small parcels and purchased by owners unwilling or unable to protect the trees, plants, and wildlife.
Earlier this month, the Virginia-based Conservation Fund announced it had purchased the 32,600-acre Clarion Junction Forest near the town of Johnsonburg, in Elk County – about 300 miles northwest of Philadelphia. That’s good news. The Conservation Fund said in a statement that the forest “will be substantially managed as a working forest, maintaining its role as a steady source of timber for local mills and jobs for timber crews” so the new ownership won’t interrupt the local economy.
The gifts of a forest in rural Elk County and a garden in the midst of suburban Montgomery County are priceless bequests that protect our air, our water, and, in the case of Stoneleigh, our peace of mind. They deserve to be protected by all of us, not plundered by short-sighted government officials.