The day that LMSD condemned 1835 County Line Road allowing it to be taken by Eminent Domain, the property was effectively titled to the LMSD. The only option available to the owners to get their property back is to fight a legal battle in court.
Lower Merion Township, PA — Fraud, collusion, and bad faith are alleged in court documents filed on February 7, 2018, by attorney Michael F. Faherty on behalf of his clients, township residents John A. Bennett, M.D. and Nance Di Rocco who are in a legal battle over the taking of their property by the Lower Merion School District.
In the documents, Bennett and Di Rocco are referred to as the "condemnees."
Who allegedly did these wrongdoings? According to the documents it was the Lower Merion School District.
Using a tool afforded only to governments, the LMSD unleashed the force of “eminent domain” on Bennett and Di Rocco. That Force is the power to condemn and take a private citizen's home, land or property by a government for the betterment of society.
Eminent domain are two words that can strike fear into anyone owning property that a school district or government wants to own or acquire.
Township residents John A. Bennett, M.D. and Nance Di Rocco of 1835 County Line Road, Villanova, PA have had their property condemned and taken by the Lower Merion School District. That is a fact, but the rest is very murky.
The court documents filed against LMSD allege a pattern of collusion and interference in a private business transaction where Bennett and Di Rocco say that LMSD officials and surrogates worked to scuttle an agreement with Villanova University to buy their property for almost $12 million.
The documents further charge the Lower Merion School District took the property illegally, and that school district officials or their delegates used fraud, collusion and bad faith tactics leading to an arbitrary action by the LMSD.
Not one dime has been transferred to the owners, they don’t know where they will live, and their granddaughter who attends Lower Merion School District appears to be a pawn in the setup of what seems to be a forthcoming legal battle.
The only course of action for the condemnees' who used to own the property, is to fight a wealthy and powerful school district.
Eminent domain is a power that if abused can destroy lives. Many instances of eminent domain being used to take property end up in court. The government has the power — it is not a right — to take land that is needed for the beneficial needs of the public. There are rules that come with that power.
The court filing alleges that the LMSD broke or disregarded these rules.
A Look at the Allegations
Villanova University’s President, Father Peter Donohue verbally offered to buy the property for $12 Million and agreed to have the paperwork drawn up.
The documents allege that Superintendent Robert L. Copeland, reached out to Father Donohue, after hearing about Villanova’s interest in the property. The document states that Copeland Donahue that $12 Million was too much for the property. Copeland allegedly told Donohue that the LMSD was interested in buying the property and that LMSD valued the property at $8 Million.
Donahue relayed to Bennett and Di Rocco that the University would delay their offer letter and that they didn’t want to appear hostile or look like they were attempting to block LMSD, “especially with all of the flair up over Stoneleigh.”
November 7th, 2018 the University and Bennett and Di Rocco executed a sale agreement with a purchase price of $9,650,000 with closing scheduled for January 4, 2019. The deal was contingent upon LMSD not taking the property via eminent domain.
Bennett and Di Rocco knew that the LMSD had reached an agreement to acquire and use 5.6 acres of property on Spring Mill Road, and they thought, according to the court documents, that the intended use for the property was for fields instead of 1835 County Line Road.
On December 18, Bennett met for a status meeting with Copeland and Stuart Dessner, who is described as an LMSD real estate agent. During that meeting, Copeland allegedly expressed LMSD’s desire to land bank the 1835 County Line Rd. property. “A land bank is a large body of land held for future development or disposal,” state the court documents.
At the same meeting, a discussion occurred about both the condemned property on County Line Road and the Spring Mill Road property. The key question being: were both properties needed?
According to Faherty’s filing Dessner stated that “LMSD could sell it to Villanova University.”
Bennett also informed Dessner and Copeland that the University would pull out of their agreement of sale if the condemnees' were able to reach an agreement with the LMSD.
Bennett provided a copy of the agreement of sale with the understanding that it would remain confidential.
Three days later on December 21, 2018. The school board convened a special meeting and passed a resolution to condemn the property at 1835 County Line Rd, and a press release was issued.
The court filing states that in a press release published the same day the school board explained its intentions. According to the document the school board's plans were to thwart the purchase of the property by Villanova University and to keep the tax base.
The document states “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.”
The Lower Merion School District explained further. “Although the sellers had indicated the district offers were basically acceptable with minor revisions, the agreements of sale were never returned to the district.”
The president of the Lower Merion Board of school directors, Dr. Melissa Gilbert, said, “I am confident our residents would rather see the land being used by their neighbors than by college students who do not live in Lower Merion or Narberth.”
The press release also stated that the property would not be needed until construction began in 2023.
On January 7, 2019, it is alleged that the Condemnees’ attorney speaking with an LMSD attorney was told if no agreement was in place with the LMSD then there is no lease, and subsequently the granddaughter living on the property would not be able to attend LMSD schools.
So what does all this mean?
The two sides, in this case, appear to be dug in and ready for a legal battle.
The condemnees', Bennett and Di Rocco, have hired an attorney that is very well-versed and specializes in eminent domain issues. Michael F. Faherty, Esq., sits on the Board of Directors of Owner’s Counsel, a nationwide network of eminent domain lawyers working to protect private property rights.
The court filing reads like a suspense novel, and it appears written so that the average person can understand the contents. It is not filled with dense legal jargon and stilted legalese phrasing that many people find off-putting.
In a written statement by Amy Buckman, spokesperson for the Lower Merion School District regarding the filing and an opportunity to interview Superintendent Copeland, TAPinto received this reply:
“All media requests for District personnel, including the Superintendent, are handled by my office. If you have questions regarding the filed preliminary objections, please contact District Solicitor Kenneth Roos. His office number is 610-496-0069."
“Due to the pending litigation, the District is referring all requests for further comment on this matter to Mr. Roos,” stated a subsequent email from Buckman.
Last year, the school district purchased the property at 1860 Montgomery Ave. in Villanova. The 22.3 acres currently houses the Islamic Foundation. This will become the new middle school but the LMSD reports that it is too small to hold the fields needed to accommodate the new school.
On December 21, 2018, the Lower Merion School District used the power of eminent domain to condemn and take the property of township residents John A. Bennett, M.D. and Nance Di Rocco.
The condemnees' attorney in a court filing disputes the taking and builds a case showing that the Lower Merion School District may not have had the right to condemn and take the Villanova property.
The filing also suggests that LMSD allegedly acted to thwart Villanova University from acquiring the property. Legal experts say that once the property became Villanova’s the school district would not be able to condemn and take the land. Schools can’t take property from other schools without agreement, making eminent domain not viable.
The court filing alleges charges of fraud, Collusion, bad faith and arbitrary action against the LMSD in the condemning and taking of the 1835 County Line Road property using the power of eminent domain.
The School District has been taken to task for its missteps in acquiring property for the new middle school.
Stoneleigh, a roughly 42-acre estate and natural gardens in Villanova, was slated to lose approximately 6.9 acres to the School District. Even though a conservation easement was in place, LMSD planned to take the property which is managed by Natural Lands, part of a Preservation Trust.
“The District’s threat to seize the public garden prompted Natural Lands to launch the #SaveStoneleigh awareness campaign. In response, nearly 40,000 people signed an online petition, 3,000 households displayed 'Save Stoneleigh' signs in their yard, and thousands sent messages of concern to the Lower Merion School Board. Some 350 residents attended a May School Board meeting wearing crimson Save Stoneleigh t-shirts,” states the Natural Lands website.
Last June, the Pennsylvania State legislature passed House Bill 2468 by a wide margin, and it was quickly signed it into law. The new law requires that entities like school districts and local governments seek court approval before taking property by eminent domain if a conservation easement protects it.
The LMSD in November planned to purchase properties at 912, 916, 920 and 922 Spring Mill Road for the needed field space. After agreeing to the purchase, the LMSD found that there were wetlands on the property causing that agreement to be scuttled in January.
The TAPinto team has requested from the school district a copy of their written response to the objections, once it has been crafted.
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