‘Disconcerting to be a taxpayer and not be heard’: Lower Merion residents rebuke school district in open space battle

Resident Ann Gelfond stands in front of a pile of rubble behind her yard. She pointed to disturbances she’s experienced for the past few three years of construction of the Lower Merion School District’s new middle school taking place behind her house, as an indication of what the construction of athletic fields in the neighborhood would be like. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Resident Ann Gelfond stands in front of a pile of rubble behind her yard. She pointed to disturbances she’s experienced for the past few three years of construction of the Lower Merion School District’s new middle school taking place behind her house, as an indication of what the construction of athletic fields in the neighborhood would be like. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A small group opposed to the Lower Merion School District’s plan to clear 13 acres of woodland and hundreds of trees in Villanova for new middle school athletic fields gathered Thursday to issue a public rebuke of local officials and demand that they find another site.

“A lot of the neighbors have very, very grave concerns about the nature of how all of this occurred, how the school district came to this conclusion. And ultimately, for all of us, a big, big issue is safety,” said Andrew Abramson, who lives across the street from where a field entrance would be.

Because the area has narrow streets and no sidewalks, members of the community anticipate hazards from traffic. Along with the safety concerns come fears of environmental degradation.

“Lower Merion is losing all of their green space. We cannot afford to lose one more tree. These are magnificent, magnificent trees, and the neighbors are very concerned about what will happen to our neighborhood,” said Ann Gelfond, whose backyard is adjacent to the ongoing construction of a new middle school.

The Thursday morning gathering had been intended as a precursor to a meeting of the township Zoning Hearing Board Thursday night at which the various parties planned to testify. But that portion of the zoning meeting was postponed shortly before the small rally began, due to procedural issues stemming from ongoing litigation.

Shawn McMurtry, a resident of Merion Station, said she wanted the LMSD to think about the long-term sustainability of the community at a protest of the Lower Merion School District’s plan to build middle school athletic fields in her neighborhood on October 14, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Resident Shawn McMurtry said she doesn’t think the district has the students’ best interests in mind.

“We need to have sustainability at the forefront of every project,” McMurtry said.

Another resident, Abe Haupt, said he has worked extensively on environmental causes and called the district’s plan “reckless” and “destructive.”

“It is a matter of the public interest. It is a matter of doing the right thing by the environment,” Haupt said.

Expansion of school facilities has been a major point of contention since 2018, when the district first raised the possibility that it might seize by eminent domain more than a half-dozen acres from the historic Stoneleigh estate and garden in Villanova for use as sports fields. As one of the fastest-growing in Pennsylvania, the school district felt a need to expand to avoid overcrowding.

And like clockwork, a fierce battle over open space ensued. Natural Lands, the conservation trust that manages the property, spearheaded a “Save Stoneleigh” campaign that pressured the district to put an end to that effort. (Even Gov. Tom Wolf weighed in by signing a bill last year designed to protect public gardens — it requires court approval to acquire property through eminent domain that is currently under conservation easement.)

But the school district quickly set eyes on another site: a large plot of woodland also in the Villanova section of Lower Merion Township, at 1800 W. Montgomery Ave. and 1835 County Line Rd. The district acquired the property, which is adjacent to Stoneleigh, for $12.9 million at the end of 2018.

Andrew Abramson, a Clairemont Road resident on the Main Line, shared his concerns about increased traffic in an area already without sidewalks at a protest of the Lower Merion School District’s plan to build middle school athletic fields in his neighborhood on October 14, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

And since then, community members have once again mobilized. There have been protests and dozens of public meetings, but it appears that the two sides are still far apart.

So far, more than 2,000 people have signed Climate Action Lower Merion’s petition calling on township and school district officials to look for other options and avoid the deforestation of “vast swaths of mature trees.”

As Abramson understands it, the school district can move forward despite the opposition from him and his neighbors.

“It makes us feel completely left out. It makes us feel like we don’t have a community. And it makes us feel like we are absolutely not a part of the process,” Abramson said.

In a lengthy statement to WHYY News, Amy Buckman, the district’s director of school and community relations, emphasized its commitment to extracurricular activities for students as a way to enhance “social emotional growth.”

Buckman also said the district has already invested “significant capital” in the project as well as successfully appealing the township’s conditions of approval.

“The fields also support the township’s comprehensive plan, which noted the need for more playing fields in the community,” Buckman said.

Residents of the Merion Station neighborhood on the Main Line protested signs in opposition to Lower Merion School District’s plan to build middle school athletic fields in their neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

She noted that the district has looked at numerous sites — including a property on Spring Mill Road, a part of the Stoneleigh site used as an composting area, and Ashbridge Park, among others — and that none has worked out.

“While LMSD understands that some neighbors are concerned about having athletic fields for children near their homes, we believe that providing ample opportunities for children from our community to practice, play, compete and learn serves a greater good,” Buckman said.

Thursday morning, Gelfond gave WHYY News a tour of the block and her backyard, which she said has already been affected by the construction of a yet-to-be-named Lower Merion middle school.

“The noise pollution is terrible already. There is not one bit of wildlife left, because there’s no place for them to go. So it’s very disconcerting to be a taxpayer and not be heard,” Gelfond said.

It was not immediately known when the postponed zoning testimony would be rescheduled.

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