Lawsuit fails to stop FDR Park renovations

A judge decided her court does not have jurisdiction to hear the suit to stop clearing trees. Petitioners plan to appeal.

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The Meadowlands trailhead

The Meadowlands trailhead and construction of a sports complex at FDR Park in June of 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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A lawsuit by close to a dozen Philadelphians to stop the renovation of FDR Park in South Philly cannot move forward in a city court, a judge decided Thursday.

“I don’t know what else I can do,” said Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge Sheila Woods-Skipper after deciding that Philly’s Orphans’ Court does not have jurisdiction in the case.

The lawsuit filed in March claimed the city’s planned renovations of the nearly 350-acre park in South Philly would amount to a “radical” transformation of the park that would violate several state statutes and Pennsylvanians’ constitutional right to clean air, pure water and preservation of the environment.

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The city and nonprofit Fairmount Park Conservancy are in the middle of a $250 million renovation of the park, which started in 2022 and will include dozens of athletic fields and courts, a new welcome center, a field house, playgrounds, nature trails and a tidal wetland.

In March, the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment granted the Fairmount Park Conservancy a special exception to cut down 48 large, healthy trees, known as heritage trees, to make way for artificial turf playing fields in a naturalized area of the park. The Conservancy also plans to cut down close to 400 other, mainly smaller trees — but plant more than 1,000 saplings in their place.

A stay delaying the Conservancy from cutting down the trees expires Thursday, said Samuel Stretton, a lawyer representing the residents. The residents fear that means the trees will be cut down before they can appeal Thursday’s decision.

“The damage is irreversible,” said Avigail Milder, a petitioner in the case who lives in South Philly and often takes nature walks and watches birds in FDR Park. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

William Shuey, a lawyer representing the city in Thursday’s jurisdiction hearing, said without a stay, the city intends to move forward with the plans.

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Stretton, the residents’ lawyer, argued Thursday that the renovation plan — particularly the construction of the artificial turf fields — would change the fundamental purpose of the park, which he described as wetlands, wildlife habitat and space for recreational activities such as fishing, bird watching and hiking. He said the fact that some athletic facilities will cost money to use means that public use will be restricted.

“People are constantly pushing these playing fields that they’re creating as the panacea to stop urban violence, and I don’t believe that,” said Lady Danni Morinich, a forager and herbalist who has led dozens of foraging tours in FDR Park and signed on as a petitioner in the suit. “Sometimes just being in nature by itself and what it does for your psyche is enough.”

Morinich also worries the loss of mature trees and the artificial turf will worsen the urban heat island effect in South Philly.

Shuey, the city’s lawyer, countered that the park renovation plan includes hiking trails and a new wetland. He said everything in the renovation plan falls under the definition of park, and that there is no plan to terminate any public use — even if some facilities will cost money to reserve.

Youth sports advocates and other proponents of the plan say there’s a shortage of quality fields in the city. City Parks and Recreation officials say the five multipurpose fields planned in the renovation could serve over 60,000 youth athletes annually.

Judge Woods-Skipper agreed with the city that even with the proposed renovations, the purpose of the property will remain parkland. Therefore, her court does not have jurisdiction to hear the case, she said.

“We are delighted about today’s decision that allows the FDR Park Plan to progress,” said Ava Schwemler, a spokesperson for the city’s Law Department, in a written statement. “This plan will preserve this South Philadelphia gem for generations to come, ensuring that neighboring communities will have access to equitable recreation opportunities while increasing the park’s resiliency against climate change. The ecological health of FDR Park depends on this plan moving forward.”

The residents plan to appeal the case to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, Stretton said.

“I want to have done everything that I could to save it,” Morinich said.

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