Hospital can't expand into park

December 9, 2008 1:06:59 PM PST
A large cancer-treatment center cannot expand into a city-owned park, because the land was donated with the stipulation that it "be used as a park forever," a judge ruled Tuesday.

The ruling effectively reverses decisions made by city officials earlier this year to give Fox Chase Cancer Center an 80-year lease, with options to renew, for $12.25 million.

Orphans Court Judge John Herron ruled that the city is not allowed to lease 19.4 acres of Burholme Park because "the public trust doctrine protects every square foot" of that land.

"Yes! Yes! Fabulous!" park supporter Timothy Kearney shouted outside the door to Orphans Court as he flipped through the 61-page opinion. "The park will be preserved and protected."

An attorney for Fox Chase did not immediately return a call for comment Tuesday. The hospital claims it will leave the city if it can't use the parkland to expand its northeast Philadelphia campus.

Burholme Park comprises 65 acres and a Victorian mansion once owned by Robert Ryerss, who in 1895 stipulated in his will that the park was to be "for the use and enjoyment of the people forever." The city accepted the land 10 years later in an ordinance incorporating the same language.

Today, park supporters describe the land as a heavily used respite in a densely populated area of the city, offering ballfields, a driving range, a mini golf course, a sledding hill, wooded areas with old-growth trees, picnic areas and hiking trails along a stream.

The judge, who spent 90 minutes walking through the park with representatives of all parties in October, described it as "magnificent" and "singularly beautiful."

The cancer center borders the park, and hospital officials want to expand by adding up to 18 multistory buildings on contiguous parkland. The expansion is needed, they say, because Fox Chase has gone from treating 700 new patients a year in 1980 to about 8,000 this year - with 12,000 new patients projected by 2015.

Hospital officials said they don't want to look at noncontiguous properties because separate campuses would destroy the synergy between researchers. City officials say the expansion will create much-needed jobs and tax revenue, in addition to the lease payments.

But opponents, who put up a five-year fight, say granting the lease would have started the city on a slippery slope of selling open space for short-term fiscal gains, to the long-term detriment of residents.

Hal Schirmer, an attorney who worked with neighbors opposing the expansion, said the public would not have seen much of a return at the end of the Fox Chase lease.

"In 80 years, the property will be covered with 80-year-old buildings," he said Tuesday.

Councilman Brian O'Neill and Mayor Michael Nutter, who supported leasing the land to Fox Chase, did not immediately return calls for comment.