If the contested Don Guanella site stays mostly open space, Delco residents have ideas for its use

Delaware County will acquire the wooded 213-acre site at Sproul Road and Reed Road in Marple Township that was home to the Don Guanella School. The property is owned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Delaware County will acquire the wooded 213-acre site at Sproul Road and Reed Road in Marple Township that was home to the Don Guanella School. The property is owned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Delaware County Council has put $21 million on the table for the former Don Guanella School property in Marple Township. Now, all eyes are on the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Maple Glen Development LLC to see if that sum meets their idea of “equitable just compensation” necessary for the county’s eminent domain attempt to succeed.

The county took the property by condemnation in July. Earlier this month, it extended its offer to the property owners.

“While the two owners, the Archdiocese and the private owner who had bought a piece of the property from the diocese, have accepted the checks, that does not mean that they have waived any legal rights to try to collect additional amounts, as they may argue that the property, in fact, has a market value in excess of the $21 million that the county has tendered,” County Solicitor Bill Martin said.

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If the talks now taking place are successful, the parties may reach a “mutual accommodation” and solidify a final property value.

But that’s a big “if.”

“If not, they will have the option of taking action, which first is before an entity called the Board of View in Delaware County, where some real estate experts will establish the value. And then that determination is subject to appeal by a dissatisfied party to the county Common Pleas Court,” Martin said.

At the earliest, a settlement might be reached next year, but if there is litigation, Martin expects it to extend beyond 2022.

For those familiar with the fight over these 213 acres, a couple more years might not seem long at all. Since the Archdiocese began marketing the Don Guanella site in 2014, it has caught the attention of prospective buyers seeking to clear the prime location along Sproul Road to develop it.

Though the Marple Township Board of Commissioners stood in opposition to all development plans, it could hold off proposals for only so long. So the county jumped into the fight to preserve the property’s forested area as open space.

As it moves closer to pulling that off, the County Council also will be weighing its options.

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“The county will be undertaking a planning process for its long-term use of the property as a county park, and there’ll be a process to incorporate the views of stakeholders, both individuals who live near the new park and also other individuals from throughout the county. And that’ll be something that county leadership will be publicizing again, probably at the beginning of the new year,” Martin said.

County Council members have said that the property likely would remain largely forested, but that they would be open to ideas from constituents.

WHYY News asked its Delco audience on Facebook to offer some thoughts on how the land might be used if the county secures it. More than 500 responses were received. Though there were a few whispers about “super” Wawa and Wegmans stores, the responses were overwhelmingly in favor of the property remaining green and free of commercial interests. Some pointed to Concord Township Community Park and the Haverford Reserve as examples the county could follow in its green space endeavors.

Ken Hemphill, communications coordinator for Save Marple Greenspace, said he is glad to see the community opposed to development, because that’s the last thing he wants to see there. As a founder of the group, he has been fighting development of the property since 2015.

From going door to door and building an email list, to attending council meetings and starting a social media campaign, Hemphill said Save Marple Greenspace has made it clear that the people want the forest protected.

“We would like those just completely left alone. There is no other wooded park in Delaware County like it,” Hemphill said.

While noting that he is not opposed to development at the front of the property, Hemphill said the wooded area could become an environmental justice issue because runoff flows into the Darby Creek and excess stormwater could cause floods.

“So we don’t want to see anything that increases stormwater outflow from that site, because Darby, Eastwick, and Upper Darby suffer downstream,” he said.

Among the more popular responses to WHYY’s informal Facebook survey called for multi-use trails and parks on the property that everyone could use, but that idea is not a new one.

John Serbeniuk of Springfield Township. who has been hiking the Don Guanella property since 2001, said he would like to see some of the trails enhanced and the existing facilities on the property used for sports. He said he places great value in the trees there for cleaning the air in the county, especially for those living near the Covanta incinerator in Chester.

“If you have that just all the way around your house and you don’t have any trees, well, the quality of life is just not going to be good,” Serbeniuk said.

Some of the respondents said they see the open space as a possible solution to another Marple issue, the dispute with PECO over a natural gas reliability station.

Greg Phat, of the Marple Safety Coalition, has been fighting to keep PECO from building the natural gas reliability station at the corner of Sproul and Cedar Grove roads, in an area zoned for businesses. He said preserving green space should be the county’s number one priority for the Don Guanella property, if it can obtain the land.

“I think that the green space has to be preserved. Once green space is lost, once the woods and forest is lost, it can never really be recovered again,” Phat said.

Though he is opposed to any commerce on the Don Guanella parcel, Phat sees it as a possible spot for the PECO station, because it would keep it away from homes and busy roads. An equivalent space “could be used for PECO as a better location. I think it would be irresponsible for PECO to not look at that location for this plant that they’re proposing.”

Mario Cimino, a member of the Delaware County Green Space Task Force, has been hiking the property since the ’90s.

“There definitely needs to be a very careful balance between environmental and recreational use, because it actually has two tributaries of Whetstone Run which are, I would say, pretty much the most pristine tributaries of Darby Creek,” Cimino said. He added that he hopes any recreational development that occurs is kept to a minimum to preserve the small waterfalls and wildlife species within the forest.

Members of the nonprofit Delco Skatepark Coalition, as well as other community members, responded that they hope a small piece of the property can be transformed into a skatepark because right now Delco only has three.

Some of the Facebook respondents said they saw possible benefits for animals in the county.

Jayci Mollichella of Eddystone said people in Delco have been talking for years about the county’s lack of animal control. The way the county has had no health department of its own,  Mollichella said most of the county’s stray animal intakes were handled by the Brandywine Valley SPCA in West Chester — not in Delaware County. “Especially since I do so much work in the city of Chester, where we literally have no place to take any dog that we find or no place to take any cats that we find. We have no place to do anything,” Mollichella said.

Barbara Walsh of Springfield has some dog-centric ideas for the property, though she wants to see most of the area preserved.

“But I would love it if there was a place for dogs off leash, specifically, especially after or during and now almost post-pandemic world, everyone seems to have a dog. There seems to be a lot of more complaints, though, about where to take them, and where to let them run,” Walsh said.

In the meantime, as the eminent domain matter plays out, County Council has approved more than $3.4 million in spending in Little Flower Park in Darby, Upland County Park in Upland, and Rose Tree Park in Upper Providence.

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