On March 5, 2019, attorneys representing the Lower Merion School District responded to the preliminary objection filed by Dr. John Bennett and Ms. Nance Di Rocco to the acquisition of their property at 1835 County Line Road in Villanova.
1835 County Line Road is one of two properties the District plans to use for athletic fields in conjunction with the construction of a new middle school at 1860 Montgomery Ave. Dr. Bennett and Ms. Di Rocco were offering the property for sale. In fact, they were scheduled to close with another buyer, Villanova University, on January 4, 2019. The Board of School Directors voted to acquire the property through its power of eminent domain in December 2018 and authorized paying Dr. Bennett and Ms. Di Rocco up to $9.95 million for it, along with granting other considerations they requested for themselves and their family.
Throughout the month of January, District representatives engaged in good faith settlement negotiations with Dr. Bennett and Ms. Di Rocco, but settlement negotiations were put on hold due to Dr. Bennett and Ms. Di Rocco having an outstanding mortgage that needed to be satisfied.
In early February 2019, the District was notified that Dr. Bennett and Ms. Di Rocco had retained an attorney who filed preliminary objections in an effort to stop the District from retaining title to the property. In a cover letter, that attorney wrote that his clients would agree to a full resolution of their claim if the District agreed to "a quick sale for $12.9 million."
The brief and response filed by attorneys for the District are public documents. Links are provided below. The response shows that the District resorted to condemnation of this property only after unsuccessfully negotiating with the property owners for an amicable purchase. The decision was also made after learning that the owners had an agreement to sell the property to another buyer. That agreement meant Dr. Bennett and Ms. Di Rocco could no longer negotiate with the District. Condemnation was the only viable way for the District to acquire the property, which is the best available site for the playing fields it badly needs for its new middle school.
Some of the key points of the response are:
- The District has been dealing with the very real issue of increasing enrollment for years. Demographic studies have been performed and shared publicly since 2012. In recent years, numerous options to deal with the issue have been evaluated, including building on to existing schools. The Board of School Directors in 2018 decided that building a new middle school for grades 5-8 was the best long-term solution to alleviate crowding at all District elementary schools and two existing middle schools.
- The search for a site for the middle school has been very public. While 1860 Montgomery Avenue is adequate for a school, it doesn't have sufficient flat space that can be used for the necessary sports fields. The search for field space has also been very public. There is little available land in Lower Merion to accommodate the District's needs.
- The fact that Dr. Bennett and Ms. Di Rocco were interested in selling their property and the fact that their property was feasible for field space led to the District's interest in the property. Discussions between the District and Dr. Bennett and Ms. Di Rocco began in the spring of 2018.
- After Dr. Bennett told the District's Realtor in Spring 2018 that Villanova University had offered to buy his property for $12 million dollars (but did not produce an agreement of sale to support that assertion), Superintendent Robert Copeland spoke to Fr. Donahue of Villanova University to gage the university's interest. Fr. Donahue said the University could be interested in the property, but that the $12 million figure was what Ms. Di Rocco was asking, not a price to which the university had agreed. The District therefore continued negotiating with Dr. Bennett and Ms. Di Rocco.
- Dr. Bennett and Ms. Di Rocco broke off negotiations with the District in October 2018. That is when the District began investigating other possible field sites, which led to the plan to acquire properties on Spring Mill Road (a site where wetlands issues were later discovered). October is also when Dr. Bennett and Ms. Di Rocco – unbeknownst to the District – entered into an agreement to sell their property to Villanova.
- In December 2018, after nearly two months of not communicating, Dr. Bennett invited Supt. Copeland and the District Realtor to his office. It was at this meeting that Dr. Bennett shared with them the Agreement of Sale that he had with Villanova. Mr. Copeland and the Realtor perceived that Dr. Bennett called the meeting to see if the District was still interested in his property and might offer more money than Villanova had.
- The only way the agreement of sale could be terminated at that point would be for Villanova to terminate it if the District took the property through Eminent Domain.
- During negotiations with Dr. Bennett and Ms. Di Rocco, they asked to stay on the property until 2023 (rent-free and without paying property taxes). The District was amenable to granting this request because 5th and 6th grade students (who will be the first to attend the new school) do not participate in PIAA sports, and because it takes less time to build fields than it does to build a school. In the meantime, all of the necessary planning work to build the fields could go on. The District has already begun the process of laying out fields and how they will fit on the site.