From Don Guanella to Delco Woods — to mental health facility? The dispute over Delaware County’s largest park

Delaware County Council is at odds with Marple Township over the county’s attempt to assess a building on the site for possible use as a mental health facility.

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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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When Delaware County Council used eminent domain to acquire the Don Guanella School property in Marple Township in 2021, community members rejoiced.

“They were heroes,” said Ken Hemphill, co-founder of Save Marple Greenspace. “We sung their praises.”

The 213-acre stretch of mostly forested land, which was previously owned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Maple Glen Development LLC, sat unused for years and faced the threat of development.

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Hemphill has worked alongside neighbors to save the property since 2015. The group pleaded with the Republican-led iterations of county council to step in and save the property.

“Despite all the advocacy around it, the previous county councils refused,” Hemphill said. “And they even mocked us for it and published a white paper that was filled with lies about our motives and intentions.”

Then, an all-Democratic council took office in 2020. Residents applauded when county council finally took action. The council listened to residents.

The subsequent park planning process even allowed the public recommendations for the county’s newest park — Delco Woods. More than 3,000 people participated in a survey regarding Delco Woods. Hundreds of people attended public meetings about the site’s future.

Roughly 500 people submitted suggestions for names — which is how the county ended up with Delco Woods. But recently, the tenor has changed. People are crowding council meetings out of frustration.

“They’ve been betrayed,” Hemphill said. “And the furor keeps getting louder and louder.”

The county didn’t renege on its promises to leave the forested, 175-acre portion of the property. The sticking point isn’t even the entirety of the remaining 38 acres of land that have already been disturbed with buildings and other additions.

The point of contention is the county council’s plan to assess a building on the property as a long-term residence for people with mental health issues.

“We’re not usually in a situation like this where we have funding to support mental health services in the county,” said Dr. Monica Taylor, chair of Delco Council. “The funding is specifically for this type of service, which we are required to provide, and we actually have the funding. We have a provider, which is always another hurdle — but we don’t have a location, and we’ve been trying to site it for two and a half years.”

The parcel encompasses approximately three acres of Delco Woods. Taylor said it’s the only viable building on the property. Opponents of the county’s plan believe their vision for a fully-realized county park is incompatible with operating a mental health facility in this location.

Marple officials move to block the facility. Delco Council takes legal action

Delco Council took legal action against the Marple Township government May 14 after local officials changed an ordinance and re-zoned the whole property as open space.

This preceded the county’s April move to seek a permit from the township to preserve its rights to use the buildings for mental health services. The county is arguing with the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas that the zoning ordinance should be deemed invalid.

“Currently, it wouldn’t allow us to necessarily utilize the property the way we had when we originally purchased it,” Taylor said.

In addition to quelling a potential mental health facility, Taylor said the ordinance might also prevent the planned park structures that the community pushed for in the draft plans.

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In an emailed statement to WHYY News, Marple Township Board President Joseph Rufo said neighbors are “very disappointed in the broken promises” and “the lawsuit against its own residents.”

“The use of housing was never discussed or entertained, or included in any of the numerous public demonstrations held by the county,” Rufo said.

Hemphill shares this sentiment. He sat on the park design committee. He said the county’s decision to introduce additional plans without consulting with residents made him feel like the work he and others put in was a “waste of time.”

“I don’t live there. So for me, it’s not about having a mental health facility in my neighborhood,” Hemphill said. “It’s more about the fact that this delays — or permanently derails — the build-out of a park hub. I want to see tourism. I want to see this help tourism. People will come from neighboring counties to visit a park hub. They’re not going to come from neighboring counties to visit a mental health facility.”

Taylor said the building in question was brought to her attention by the county’s legal team. The parcel is zoned institutional, possibly allowing for the facility in question.

With Crozer Health’s well-documented collapse, the county does have a need for increased mental health services — especially given the state of the four-hospital system.

The people housed in the facility would not be considered dangerous, according to Taylor. This would not be a high-level institution. It would be a full-lockdown facility where the only people coming and going would be the health care workers.

Once people graduate from the program, they would move back into the community.

“We’ve been trying to site this facility for over two and a half years,” Taylor said. “And so we have gone through 25 different potential locations all across the county that have been denied or haven’t been able to utilize for whatever reason. We are still actively looking for other locations. We have about four or five of them that we’re actually looking at right now.”

Delco Council is not unanimous in its support for mental health facility at Delco Woods

As it stands right now, Taylor said county council just wanted to assess the building’s viability.

“That’s why it has not actually been on an agenda or approved of any sort to move forward with the full project,” Taylor said.

Delco Councilmember Elaine Schaefer is the lone council member opposing a mental health facility at a building on the Delco Woods property. She reiterated her respect for her colleagues and the fact that the desire to assess the facility was driven by a need for options.

Nevertheless, Schaefer drew a distinction between her vision for Delco Woods and what her fellow council members might have in mind.

“Given my set of priorities, I don’t believe that there should be any governmental institutional use on the property,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer does not see a world where the two concepts co-exist.

“In my opinion, the uses are incompatible. We engaged in a process where we solicited a really incredible, robust opinion from all over the county,” Schaefer said.

The public backed a “state-of-the-art world-class park” centered around the area where the buildings currently exist.

“In my opinion, any governmental institutional use within that main area [in] the master plan would not be compatible,” Schaefer said.

Delco has no plans to house undocumented immigrants at Delco Woods — but a ‘fringe element’ persists

Some of the opposition against a mental health facility is rooted in safety concerns.

Taylor believes the stigma surrounding mental health has played a role in exacerbating fears. She said a similar facility elsewhere in the county also exists. When asked about its location, Taylor declined.

“Given the current climate, I would think that that would cause other problems for that facility,” Taylor said.

Then there are the false and unfounded claims that Delaware County Council is planning to house undocumented immigrants in the Delco Woods that have driven a new level of fury into a relatively normal dispute.

The baseless allegations prompted county council to issue a statement in March unequivocally denying the rumors. Despite the missive, some community members continue circulating rumors online and doubling down.

One thing Hemphill, Schaefer and Taylor agree on is that the false narrative around housing undocumented immigrants in Delco Woods has derailed an important dialogue.

Hemphill feels as though those voices have co-opted a movement he helped start “to score political points for this fringe element that keeps coming out and screaming about stolen elections and other nonsense.”

Taylor emphasized that no decision has been made.

“Our goal is to try and find another location for it,” Taylor said. “I welcome others to help us find another location.”

The county is continuing to review other options.

“And it is my true, great hope that we do find a more suitable spot and that we can then get back on track in creating a world-class park that will create incredible value to all of our residents,” Schaefer said.

The county is still in the planning process for Delco Woods.

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