‘It would change the soul of Morrisville’: A Bucks County community fights to keep its park

Some residents are suing the borough in Orphans Court, saying a plan to develop the park as apartments and business 40 violates state law.

Children sled on a slope in Williamson Park in Morrisville. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Children sled on a slope in Williamson Park in Morrisville. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In Morrisville, Bucks County, community members are defending their park against pavement.

They want to save Williamson Park from a $125 million development project that would bulldoze over its 40 acres along the Delaware River and turn them into 800 parking spaces, 500 luxury apartments, a hotel, retail shops, and restaurants.

Most of the apartments would be studios and one-bedrooms, with rents starting at $1,700 a month. Select Morrisville, a local development group headed by Joseph McGrath, designed the proposal.

“This park is where Morrisville gathers,” said borough resident Don Rice, a member of the “Save Williamson Park” team. “It’s where we have community events. You have it in the park. And if we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t be a community, we would just be a housing development.”

Don Rice lives an easy walk from Williamson Park in Morrisville, Pa. He is fighting a plan to turn the park into a 600-plus apartment and retail complex on the Delaware River. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
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In a lawsuit filed in Bucks County Orphans Court, residents assert that the borough has a legal obligation to keep the park for public use, and that developing it would violate Pennsylvania’s Dedicated and Donated Property Act.

That law says public parkland cannot be sold unless it’s no longer practical to use or the community is unable to use it, according to the team’s lawyer, Samuel Stretton. A hearing is scheduled for Feb. 1.

In an interview, Stretton said the borough recently paired up with the Bucks County Redevelopment Authority to prove the parkland is “blighted,” or unusable, a strategy that would help the RDA claim the parkland for the project. He said the RDA took photos of land surrounding the park, private property outside the park’s boundaries, to claim that the park is rundown.

“There’s no evidence of that at all. It’s not blighted. It’s a wonderful park, and it’s just a trick,” said Stretton. “We intend to stop it, and they have no basis to proceed like this. If they want to play that game, then I think they’re going to be embarrassed in court.”

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Williamson Park, with baseball and soccer fields, tennis courts, basketball courts, picnic areas, and playground equipment, is located along the Delaware River in Morrisville, Pa. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In warmer weather, Rice said, Morrisville gathers in Williamson Park. The borough has concerts, free library events for kids, and Easter egg hunts. People picnic, fly kites, watch migrating birds, and enjoy the scenic views along the Delaware River (Trenton lies on the other side). When it snows, kids sled there.

The park’s baseball fields were home to the 1955 Little League World Series champions. Some of them still live in town.

Morrisville at the 1955 Little League World Series, which the team won. (Courtesy of Morrisville Little League)

“If they did this, it would change the soul of Morrisville,” said resident Debby Colgan. “It would change our character. We want to be an authentic town. We want to express who we are.

“What they’re planning is a fake town center, and it will wipe out Morrisville’s history and the people of Morrisville,” Colgan said. “It’s not representative of this community.”

Morrisville resident Debby Colgan. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Part of the park’s history designates it for public use. In 1885, Edna Vansant and Andrew K. Rowan, a descendant of Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte’s estranged brother, gave a portion of the land in a trust to three Trenton churches.

In 1938, Henry Williamson donated money to Morrisville Borough to purchase the land. After the gift, Morrisville signed a lease with the three Trenton churches. The parcels bought with the funds from Williamson’s will and the churches’ land became Williamson Park. In 1939, Morrisville entered into a 99-year agreement to maintain the properties together as Williamson Park.

Not just a place to play

Last Friday was a snow day in Morrisville and surrounding towns. In the afternoon, kids and parents were sledding in Williamson Park.

Children sled down the levee that separates Williamson Park from the Delaware River in Morrisville. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Evie Hans,14, was with a group of friends from Yardley. She said the Morrisville hill was nicer than the one in her town.

“They should keep it,” said Hans. “It’s such a unique place for Morrisville because there aren’t a lot of things for kids to do here.”

Jamilla Stafford watches her daughter sledding at Williamson Park in Morrisville. She said she likes having the park here for her daughter’s sake. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

But some Morrisville community members, like Brian Merrill, think the proposed development is a long time coming.

“It’s taking the area that’s underutilized and revitalizing it,” said Merrill.

Brian Merrill gives his daughter a push on the sledding slope at Williamson Park in Morrisville. He said he thinks a proposed apartment and retail development at the park would be good for the town. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Colgan is concerned about the long-term environmental impact of losing the park.

“The park, no matter whether or not you’re actually using it, it’s working for you. It has value to everybody here,” she said.

Williamson Park is prone to flooding. During some of the most notable floods, in 1955, 2005, and 2006, the water rose at least three feet there.

Rice, now retired, worked as a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and the New Jersey Water Science Center. He described the park as a bowl.

“There’s no natural outlet to any of this, so it fills up,” said Rice. “For the flooding reason alone, [the development] doesn’t make sense. I don’t get it.”

Residents canoe in Williamson Park during the 2005 flood. (Courtesy of Save Williamson Park)

The increased pavement the development would bring would increase flood runoff and “raise that water level several feet,” Rice said, which could lead to increased flooding for the park’s residential neighbors.

Morrisville Borough Council member Nancy Sherlock represents the park’s ward.

“The people have spoken,” said Sherlock, who surveyed her ward and found that an overwhelming majority were against the development.

Some of the people who support it believe the development would help lower taxes, she said.

“What they’re not understanding is … it’s not. It might put a stopgap temporarily on them if it were to go through, but it’s not going to be a windfall,” said Sherlock. “It’s not going to be enough, and it won’t be sustainable.”

She said the town desperately needs a school district merger, not development over the parkland.

The Morrisville School District has attempted to merge with nearby districts for decades. The majority working-class community, with a median income of  $37,000, puts most of its taxes towards the district, made up of about 1,200 students.

With rising teacher pension costs, cuts to state education funding, and the loss of federal stimulus dollars, Morrisville has raised taxes to recoup losses. The Morrisville district has a budget of $22.4 million and is facing a $750,000 deficit unless it receives additional funding from the state or raises taxes even more.

Dina Tanzillo has lived in the borough her whole life, almost 55 years. Her father, Anthony Tanzillo, 76, lived behind the town’s Acme Market for seven years.

“We had a loading dock in our front yard, and he bought [close to the park] thinking that this was going to be protected space,” said Tanzillo. “But if this goes through, the plans have a grocery store, so he’s going to have the loading dock behind his house again.”

Morrisville resident Dina Tanzillo. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Many community members would rather hear the crack of a baseball bat than the sounds of traffic that would come along with the project.

Right now, the park has eight baseball fields and one softball field.

Jim O’Brien, president of Morrisville Little League, agreed that the long-term solution, rather than the development, is a district merger, and the town’s league is the gateway.

O’Brien said the league serves as a bridge that heals some divisions he sees across town lines.

“There has historically been some misunderstandings of what exactly each community represents,” said O’Brien, “When you go down to play in the baseball field and you sit next to another parent and you see your kids playing together on the field, you start to realize that those preconceived notions are wrong, and that these are people that are part of our community and we should be one community together.”

Williamson Park is home to the Morrisville Little League, winners of the 1955 World Series. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The ballfields in Williamson Park allow families with kids in different age groups to run from game to game.

According to O’Brien, Select Morrisville proposes to pave over six of the existing ballfields and build four new fields across the street from a cemetery on a former municipal dump just south of a strip club.

“I think the Little League, and assets like the Little League that draw people into the community are things that should be built around, not bulldozed over,” he said.

Morrisville at the 1955 Little League World Series, which the team won. (Courtesy of Morrisville Little League)

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