LOWER MERION TWP, Pa. (WPVI) -- Stoneleigh, the 42-acre estate and natural gardens in Villanova that recently opened to the public, is now being threatened by a proposal from the Lower Merion School District.
The district is considering seizing a portion of the garden and using it as the site of a new middle school.
A large crowd assembled at the Lower Merion Township school board meeting Monday night to express their displeasure with the plan.
Supporters say Stoneleigh was meant to be for the public, but as an open space with gardens, not to become playing fields or grounds for a new school.
The meeting room overflowed with supporters of Stoneleigh, their message: to stop the school district from taking the property through eminent domain.
The owners of the property, the Haas family, gifted it to Natural Lands, a preservation company. They say the land is protected.
"John and Chara Haas, who owned and lived at Stoneleigh from the 1960s until the early 2000s put a conservation easement on the property in 1996," said Natural Lands President Molly Morrison. "John and Chara chose conservation, not development."
The school district argues enrollment is moving at a rapid pace and they need land for another school and sports fields. Options in the town are scarce.
"While I appreciate how precious Stoneleigh is, I believe really strongly in a public education and that we provide the kids with the facilities they need," said Lower Merion Parent Marie Beresford.
The district found four potential properties, including the estate and gardens, but none so far have worked out.
District officials say the estate has 6.9 acres set aside by the owners for "future development" but Natural Lands says they do not agree and the original owners' heirs do not either.
"That 6.9 acres is an integral part of the property," said Morrison. "It contains some of the historic homestead and landscapes."
It is too early for the board to make any decisions about where they could potentially build. Natural Lands said it will put up a legal fight and do whatever it takes to keep the land as a public garden.
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