Delaware County ditches plan to place mental health facility at Delco Woods

Delco’s previous decision to assess the possibility of placing long-term structured residences at the county’s largest park garnered widespread criticism.

Tree on the park grounds

The 213-acre site at Sproul Road and Reed Road in Marple Township was home to the Don Guanella School. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Delaware County officials have decided against turning a building at Delco Woods into a mental health treatment facility.

Recent reports determined that the building, which sits on a 3-acre parcel, is not viable because of its condition and potential renovation costs.

“The County continues to look at other locations in Delaware County to treat community members and address the mental health crisis in our community,” officials said in a statement released Wednesday morning. “Regardless of the feasibility of this particular site, the critical work of identifying an appropriate location to provide this essential service continues.”

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The county’s decision to explore the possibility of establishing long-term structured residences (LTSR) at the county’s largest park sparked criticism.

Ken Hemphill, co-founder of Save Marple Greenspace, said he was thrilled to see the county back off its plans.

“It’s hard for people to back down when they’re faced with such nasty opposition and I think it takes real courage — what they did — deciding to move on and take the mental health facility off the table,” Hemphill said.

Delco Woods previously existed as the Don Guanella School. In 2021, Delaware County Council used eminent domain to acquire the 213-acre property from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and a developer.

Residents hailed county officials as heroes for saving the forested, 175-acre stretch of land in Marple Township. However, the park planning process has soured since the county revealed its intention of assessing an old building on the remaining 38 acres for use as a mental health residence.

Community members felt betrayed, with critics arguing that the facility was incompatible with park plans.

“Using an existing building for an LTSR would not have affected the open space use or our plans to create an extraordinary County park with many amenities,” the county said.

The county continues to assert LTSRs are in “short supply” in the region, especially since the closure of mental health beds at Norristown State Hospital. Delco officials secured a health care provider in 2021 and have evaluated more than 25 locations for siting the facility. Delco Woods is now off the table.

While Hemphill was opposed to the county’s mental health facility plans at Delco Woods, he commended county council for working through the vitriol.

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“Throughout all this, there’s been a lot of mudslinging at council and people seem to have very short memories that it was this council that did the brave thing of using eminent domain to save this land,” Hemphill said. “And so now, I hope some of these very loud voices will support the necessary funding because that park isn’t going to build itself and no one wants to work for free.”

Marple Township’s government in May rezoned the entire property as open space. The county subsequently sued. Hemphill believes the county should drop its lawsuit and just seek a zoning variance in the future if it wishes to make changes on the property,

According to county officials, it will continue to pursue legal challenges against Marple Township.

“The County, however, is willing to work with Marple Township on amending their open space zoning to avoid further litigation and ensure zoning for the property meets the needs of the County in creating a park that serves all of Delaware County for generations to come,” the county said.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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