Delco Times Editorial: Pave Paradise? Can Marple tract be saved?

Alex Charlton has a novel idea about what should be done with the grounds of the former Don Guanella School off Route 320 in Marple.

Charlton is a Republican who is running for the state House 165th District seat that is being vacated by longtime state Rep. Bill Adolph. That would include those 213 pristine acres of forests and trails tucked behind Cardinal O’Hara High School.

Charlton wants the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which owns the tract, to donate the land so it can be preserved as open space.

Of course, this tract has been the focus on intense debate ever since the archdiocese closed the Don Guanella School and put one of the last large, undeveloped tracts of open space in the densely populated central part of the county on the market.

They thought they had a deal to sell the plot to developer Bruce Goodman, who had plans for a grandiose mix of residential, retail and entertainment uses he was planning to call Cardinal Crossing.

But Goodman ran into immediate resistance in the community. Even a slightly scaled-down version of his plan – including more open space and fields for youth athletics – failed to pass muster. It was opposed by both county planners and the township, which rejected his appeal for the zoning change he needed to deliver a Wegmans supermarket and lots of townhouses on the tract.

The archdiocese gave him an extension on their original agreement of sale, which called for Goodman to pay $47 million to the land. But when he could not get the green light from the township for his plans, the archdiocese decided to cut bait. Last week they canceled their agreement of sale, and indicated they would put the tract back on the market and seek other offers.

The Cardinal Crossing plans sparked a community group to form their own organization, which they called Save Marple GreenSpace. They pushed hard to stop the development, packing township meetings, planting signs along the streets near the site and holding a community walk of the pristine woods a couple of weeks ago as a way of showing residents and neighbors what was at stake.

Yesterday members of the group joined Charlton at his press conference . They would like to see the county step up and buy the tract in the densely populated region of the township, similar to what happened recently when the county announced plans for a county park on the site of Little Flower Manor Nursing Home along Springfield Road in Darby Borough.

“We’re asking for a $100 million bond,” said Ken Hemphill, one of the group’s leaders. “It would benefit everyone in the county.”

Charlton appealed to archdiocesan leaders on bit higher level.

“The future of this property rests in the hands of Archbishop (Charles) Chaput, and I respectfully ask him to be a protector of God’s handiwork by donating this land, and I’m asking everyone here today to join me in a campaign not to sell it,” Charlton said at a morning press conference at the site.

Charlton stressed that all options should be utilized in trying to save the land, but that he did not want to burden the taxpayers through a bond issue. Thus the call for the archdiocese to donate the land.

“Overburdened taxpayers should not have to take on more debt and pay higher taxes to obtain a preserved property they have been subsidizing for years,” Charlton said, a clear reference to the church tax-exempt status for that land for years.

As you might expect, church leaders are not exactly doing back flips over this proposal.

Archdiocese spokesman Ken Gavin confirmed that the tract is still on the market and the intent remains to find a new buyer.

“We have moved it back into the market with the goal of completing a transaction quickly,” Gavin said. “We are convening a fast-tracked process in the hope of accomplishing that goal.”

Not even the members of SaveMarpleGreenspace expect the archdiocese, which has more than its shares of financial challenges, to suddenly give away this extremely valuable tract of land in the middle of Delaware County.

They’d like to see Delaware County Council put a referendum on the November ballot and let the people decide the merits of floating a bond to acquire the land.

Maureen Stewart is treasurer of Save Marple GreenSpace. She said the group has no expectation that the archdiocese will suddenly donate the land.

“They are the legitimate owners and as such, are entitled to fair and reasonable compensation, based on the existing zoning and use, for the value of the property,” she said.

For now, they are not paving paradise. But just how to preserve this pristine tract – if they can at all – is still very much up for debate.