Opponents of the Lower Merion School District’s plan to locate new athletics fields in the heart of their neighborhood voiced their concerns and called on the school district and township to find a suitable alternative location. They say it would result in increased pollution, safety problems, traffic congestion, and the destruction of nearly 500 historic trees and 13 acres of critical woodland habitat in a generations-old canopy shared with Stoneleigh.
The neighborhood gathering that would have preceded Lower Merion Zoning Hearing Board’s scheduled Oct. 14 meeting, however it was but the zoning hearing was postponed and a new date has not yet been set. Multiple appeals were filed by residents who oppose the district’s plans for the new athletic field.
To date, 2,179 people have signed a petition calling on township officials and the school district to work together to explore other options and avoid the parcel’s complete deforestation, including clearcutting the vast areas of mature trees.
When neighbors and other supporters of the public gardens at Stoneleigh in 2018 successfully blocked the Lower Merion School District from seizing its land and taking part of the property for its then-proposed new middle school’s playing fields, the district looked at other sites. Eventually, it settled on land (1800 W. Montgomery Avenue and 1835 County Line Road), which include a forest and wildlife habitat. There are nearly 500 historic trees on the site near Stoneridge, Clairemont, and adjoining streets in the Rosemont-Villanova section of the township, the opponents contend.
Lower Merion School District residents sounded off on the ongoing issue and how it would impact their community.
“The issue with this proposal by LMSD is multi-faceted and unfortunately severely impacts the community it supposedly serves,” said Andrew Abramson, a Lower Merion resident. “The biggest impact to those of us who live in the immediate neighborhood is safety. But unfortunately, safety is being thrown out the window, and for those of us who have followed the process we just don’t understand why.”
“First, there is the safety of the children in an unsecured field. LMSD touts how safe the new school will be with high walls, security lights, cameras, and more,” Abramson continued. “It feels like they are pushing an agenda that in no way serves our community when there are a lot of better options.”
Another resident agreed.
“The LMSD was well aware of the limitations of that purchase and the challenges of making that property viable, with only one field and a few tennis courts, fitting into the unusual configuration,” Ann Gelfond said. “Their seizing of the County Line property for fields has many issues as well.”
“Both the school and proposed fields will impact the entire neighborhood, as well as our neighbors across Montgomery Avenue, with additional cars as both locations have minimal parking,” Gelfond said.
“The Lower Merion Board of School Directors and Administration strongly believe that every child in our district deserves the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities that will enhance their social/emotional growth and connection to their school community,” said Amy Buckman, a spokeswoman for the district. “For many of our students, participation in athletics supports these goals.
“That is why in December 2018, the district paid more than $12.9 million for the contiguous properties at 1800 W. Montgomery Avenue and 1835 County Line Road, which had both been offered for sale by their owners,” she said. “Since then, the district has invested significant capital in designing the project and going through the land development process, including a successful appeal of the township’s conditions of approval. The additional fields also support the township’s comprehensive plan, which noted the need for more playing fields in the community.
“Prior to finalizing the field location, the district looked at numerous other sites that ended up not working out,” Buckman added. “These included properties on Spring Mill Road, which contained protected wetlands; the area of Stoneleigh that’s currently being used for composting, the acquisition of which was blocked; Ashbridge Park, the acquisition of which was also blocked; and other sites that were deemed unsuitable for a variety of reasons, including topography, amount of acreage and distance from the school.
“While LMSD understands that some neighbors are concerned about having athletic fields for children near their homes, we believe that providing ample opportunities for children from our community to practice, play, compete and learn serves a greater good,” she said.