“No person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” United States Constitution, Fifth Amendment
Ardmore, Lower Merion Township, PA — 1835 County Line Road is the property that is wanted by Villanova University and by the Lower Merion School District. It encompasses 10.4 acres of land. The property owners had an agreement in place to sell to Vilanova. John Bennett and Nance Di Rocco are the property owners, and like most owners of homes or property, they want to sell it to the highest bidder.
In late December, a special meeting of the Lower Merion School District Board of Directors was called. The School Board of Directors announced that they would be using eminent domain to acquire two properties to be used as “fields” for the new middle school that is in the works. The two properties were 1800 and 1835 County Line Road.
The owners of the approximately 3-acre property at 1800 County Line Road have agreed to terms with LMDS.
According to a document titled “Update on Property Acquisition” sent to the media and posted on the school district’s website the larger of the two properties has not agreed to the taking of the property.
“The District remains hopeful that an amicable settlement can be reached in connection with its acquisition of 1835 County Line Road,” stated Amy Buckman of LMSD. She went on to say “but the Board will not spend nearly $3 million more than it has already approved for the sake of expediency.” Buckman’s statements were made via an email to the TAPinto team and were received Friday at 4:04 PM.
Nowhere in the email does the term eminent domain appear. The letter connotes an agreement that has gone sour. But is condemning and taking a property via eminent domain an agreement?
In December 2019, Lower Merion School district, after finding out about Villanova’s desire to own the property and that a deal had been struck with the University, tried to outmaneuver the owners and Villanova by taking the property using a tool provided to governments called “eminent domain.” It appears that the owners plan to fight the school district in court.
What is eminent domain?
Eminent domain is the power of government to take property for public use so long as the government pays just compensation. Schools are a recognized public uses making land slotted for schools a legitimate way to use eminent domain laws. The government can exercise the power of eminent domain to acquire property even if the property owner does not wish to sell the property. Government taking of such property is called a condemnation, or a taking.
The School Board authorized paying up to $9.95 million for the property and approved a lease permitting Dr. Bennett and Ms. Di Rocco to stay on the property through May 2023.
The LMSD position is that during January 2019 representatives of the district and the owners engaged in what the LMSD labeled as “good faith settlement discussions. “Settlement negotiations had to be put on hold due to Dr. Bennett and Ms. Di Rocco having an outstanding mortgage on the property,” the statement said.
This month, the school district received notice that Dr. Bennett and Ms. Di Rocco wanted to go ahead with the sale of their property to Villanova. In the cover letter, an attorney wrote that his clients would, however, agree to a full resolution of their claim if the District agreed to “a quick sale for $12.9 million.”
Phone calls to Villanova late Friday afternoon have not yet been returned. Most calls went directly to voicemail.
It is typical of government agencies and businesses to release information late on Friday afternoons. Usually, the organization wants the weekend to control the narrative of its announcement or position, and as such, there is little time to have an opposing position drawn and distributed.
Other times information is released late in the day on a Friday because the information tends to paint the organization or its announcement in a negative light and the thought is many people won’t see it.
Sometimes the information is released late in the day on a Friday just because it took time to have all of the organization's key people sign off on information that had just been recently received.
Whatever the reason for the late notice many questions are left up in the air unanswered.
If Villanova had an agreement in place and the LMSD tried to usurp or supplant that agreement how much was the University’s offer in December?
What was the basis for LMSD agreeing to pay up to $9.95 million?
The Lower Merion Board of School Directors held a special meeting on Friday, December 21, 2019. The board announced their intention to use eminent domain and included this statement: “the condemnation will keep the property in use for the residents of Lower Merion Township and Narberth, rather than enabling Villanova University to take the property off the tax rolls for its private development use.”
Is the school district trying to sway public opinion by basically stating that property that is privately owned now, can be used for the public and keeping that property out of the University’s hands is a good thing?
Is the School Board of Directors interfering with an organization's rights to acquire property because that organization will remove it from the tax roles?
The LMSD reports “Settlement negotiations” that happened in January. Settlement usually confers that the two sides already agreed. Was there an official sale agreement with LMSD and the property owners or a signed letter of intent or agreement?
Whether the property is owned by the School District or by Villanova University the property will be removed from the tax roles so what is the point of the statement?
If there was an agreement or letter of intent why isn’t the school district holding the owners to that agreement?
If the school district ready to use eminent domain to take property, why not find one 30 acre property or multiple properties at one location where children won’t need to be bused or transported to the fields?
The TAPinto team will be following this story as it develops. Should you have a tip or have information that you think we can use, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call the office at 610-600-9200.
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