It’s not every day that a municipality condemns land to preserve open space. But the Springfield Township Board of Commissioners did just that on Sept. 14.
It’s not every day that a municipality condemns land to preserve open space. But the Springfield Township Board of Commissioners did just that on Sept. 14, passing a resolution that authorizes the township to spend just over $1 million to buy a piece of the Harston Woods property at 380-402 Haws Lane.
The vote was 4-2, with Board President Eddie Graham and Commissioners Peter Wilson, Susanna Ratsavong, and Baird Standish voting yes, while Commissioners Jim Lee and Jonathan Cobb voted no. Commissioner Michael Maxwell was absent due to illness. The money will come out of the township’s reserve funds.
According to Township Manager, Michael Taylor, property owner Brian Halligan of MEH Investments agreed to a “friendly condemnation,” meaning that it would not oppose the Township’s taking of 2.7598 acres of the 4.75-acre plot in exchange for compensation not to exceed $1,050,000 (the money will come out of the Township’s reserve funds). Friendly condemnations reduce the cost of litigation for both parties.
According to Taylor, Halligan will continue to be financially responsible for about $240,000 in liens against the property, and nothing’s final until the deal is fully executed. So far, that deal would include Halligan being able to develop the remaining 2.04 acres with 16 townhomes, a possible walking path and a small parking lot, as long as plans comply with Township ordinances and is recommended by the Planning Commission.
The vote on the resolution almost did not happen. At a workshop meeting held two days before the Wednesday business meeting, a number of local residents who had been asking the township to look for grant money to buy and preserve the whole piece of land for open space asked for more time.
Alexandra Klinger, director of Springfield Open Space; Ellen Stevenson, who spoke for the group Save Harston Woods, and Haws Lane residents Susan Hoffman, Jenny French, and Margie Forgione also asked for a community-wide meeting on the matter. When Forgione said “the agenda just came out on Friday night. I found out about it at 6:30 tonight,” the audience nodded their heads in agreement.
Graham said he was willing to consider postponing the vote until the board’s October Business Meeting if Halligan agreed, and Commissioner Lee said he would agree to postpone regardless.
But in the end, the commissioners decided to check with Halligan first before the Business Meeting. So everyone left that meeting not knowing whether there would be a vote on the resolution two days later.
Then, at the Business Meeting, Standish said “I understand from conversations with Brian Halligan as recently as yesterday, if we don’t pass this resolution by Friday, he is going to file an application on Friday to build a mental health hospital.” Standish then moved immediately to vote on the resolution.
Lee, however, moved to table action until October’s Business Meeting, in order to give township residents “a little bit” more notice and an opportunity to make public comments. He said that although “he didn’t expect to hear anything new,” he thought a chance for public comment would be “good governance.” That motion failed, with Lee and Cobb voting yes and Graham, Standish, Wilson, and Ratsavong voting no.
About 40 Haws Lane residents attended the meeting in person and another 18 residents tuned in via Zoom, and the agenda was full, so it was some time before they spoke.
First was the Engineer’s Report, followed by a half-hour presentation on the results of the township’s single-use plastic bag surveys. Then the board interviewed five candidates for one vacancy on the Planning Commission. It wasn’t until 9:30 p.m. that the board got to the issue of Haws Lane.
At that point, an extensive comment period and discussion that lasted more than an hour ensued. It started off with Township Solicitor Jim Garrity explaining how the board reached the decision.
Klinger, the first of many who spoke during the hour-long discussion with commissioners, read an open letter opposing the proposed partial condemnation, urging the commissioners to engage the assistance of the Natural Lands trust. An NLT grant, along with private donations, would be sufficient to acquire the entire 4.78 acres of woodlands, she said, and offered to pay the NLT’s $10,500 fee out of the Springfield Open Space coffers.
She also said that open space advocates opposed the proposed development of 16 double-stacked townhouses on 2.04 acres because the density “is twice the allowable density of any parcel in Springfield Township,” and would set a dangerous precedent for single-tract zoning changes and similarly dense development proposals, especially on the adjacent Harston Hall property.
Ratsavong and Lee reminded the audience that, in addition to speaking with the NLT, the township had also reached out to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DNCR) about grant funding, but that the township couldn’t submit a proposal until they had a willing seller, something that they did not have at the time. In any event, Lee said, the maximum grant funding they could get from DCNR was $500,000, not enough to buy the entire lot.
So that left four options, Lee said.
“One, we could do nothing – and there’s an argument to be made for that. Regardless of whether it’s a good [development] plan or a bad plan, we just let it go through,” he said. “Second, we could have approved some kind of alternate use housing … and we said yes. We decided collectively – there were disagreements – it was not a consensus – that MEH’s plans were too dense – so we ended up not doing it.
“Third, we could work out some kind of hybrid plan that has some preservation and provides some development in an agreeable way that does not involve lengthy litigation,” he continued. “And fourth, we could condemn the entire site. It’s millions of dollars that has huge taxpayer ramifications.”
Ratsavong noted that “the commercial aspect of the institutionally-zoned property is highly relevant as far as valuation goes – the fact that the property could be commercialized affects market value.”
All commissioners agreed that the market value of the institutionally-zoned Haws Lane tract was actually greater than it would be if it were zoned for residential use. In the end, the board chose the hybrid option because it was financially feasible and because Halligan agreed to a friendly condemnation, avoiding costly litigation.
According to Springfield Township Manager Michael Taylor, the Township has used its power of eminent domain three times since 1990.
In December 1999, the township used “friendly” condemnations to acquire the former Robertson Greenhouse property (now Laurel Beech Park) on Mermaid Lane, and to acquire two properties located at 312 Oreland Mill Road and a portion of a property located at 323 Lorraine Ave. (now Chiaramonte Park) in March 2008.
In September 2015, the Board of Commissioners exercised its power of eminent domain to acquire the former Tank Car Corporation of America property. That condemnation was not “friendly,” and the township continues litigation with the former owners over compensation.
It took practically three years to reach the point of voting to condemn the Haws Lane parcel, a process that involved many workshop meetings, informal planning commission meetings, one community meeting hosted by Halligan, the formation of two new resident advocacy groups (Springfield Open Space and Save Harston Woods), at least four different conceptual development plans, one eco-park plan proposed by Haws Lane residents, at least two resident petitions, and no less than fifteen Chestnut Hill Local articles to cover all of the action.
Not all of the Haws Lane residents are displeased with the hybrid outcome for the 380-402 Haws Lane site. As Haws Lane resident Jenny French said at the September 2022 workshop meeting, “to me, it’s a reasonable plan and something I can live with.”
Township residents can obtain audio recordings of past board Workshop meetings by contacting Township Manager Michael Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can access all board Business Meeting agendas, minutes, and recordings on the Springfield Township website, Springfieldmontco.org