Conservancy mobilizes as Lower Merion looks to Stoneleigh garden for school use

Stoneleigh Gardens is the newest preserve from Natural Lands. Formally the estate of the Haas Family, the gardens and grounds will open to the public ion Mother's Day. Many of the structures are over 100 years old. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Stoneleigh Gardens is the newest preserve from Natural Lands. Formally the estate of the Haas Family, the gardens and grounds will open to the public ion Mother's Day. Many of the structures are over 100 years old. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

To combat overcrowding, Lower Merion School District has proposed buying — or seizing through eminent domain — 6.9 acres of the Stoneleigh estate and historic garden in Villanova.

In response, Natural Lands, the conservation trust overseeing the property, has launched a public advocacy campaign called “Save Stoneleigh,” urging the district to drop its bid. The brewing land-use battle puts a spotlight on the high demand for both open space and more classrooms in a heavily populated part of Montgomery County.

Lower Merion is the fastest-growing school district in Pennsylvania, according to district officials, and will enroll as many as 700 new students over the next decade, jumping from 8,600 students to 9,300. The district has added classrooms to at least six schools already, but parents are critical of that option, said district solicitor Kenneth Roos.

“Basically, there’s signs all over the township, ‘No Mega Schools.’ Because they think the schools are too big for the sites already,” he said.

In April, the school district sent letters of intent for four properties — Friends Central Lower School Campus, Center for Islamic Studies, St. Charles Seminary and Stoneleigh — testing the waters to see if their owners might be willing to sell land for school development. Only one, the Center for Islamic Studies, has responded affirmatively, according to Roos, who said that site is unsuitable for sports fields.

At Stoneleigh, gardeners and conservators have been doing their own planning, preparing the picturesque 42-acre estate that once belonged to the Haas family to open to the public, starting Sunday.

Renowned landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and John Charles Olmsted designed portions of the estate grounds that include an ironwood tree so sprawling it earned a place on a register of “champion” trees. Those historic features occupy portions of the 6.9-acre area the school district is eyeing, said Molly Morrison, president of Natural Lands.

“It’s particularly dismaying to see a property like Stoneleigh targeted for eminent domain acquisition,” said Morrison.

Natural Lands has hired law firm Ballard Spahr to fend off any attempt a condemn the land through eminent domain.

School district officials will be touring the property, which they would like to use for sports fields, on May 18. Roos said the Lower Merion School Board will ultimately weigh every option before deciding whether to invoke eminent domain.

“It’s not the district’s first choice to do that,” said Roos. “But it just can’t be taken off the table as an option.”

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