Pennsylvania has a new bill, inspired by the recent events in Lower Merion at Stoneleigh Garden. Months ago, Lower Merion Township indicated that it would like to use eminent domain to seize Stoneleigh as the location for its newest school. After a huge public backlash, the township quickly relented on its plans and focused on other locations.
In the process, however, one important question arose: “Can eminent domain apply to properties with conservative easements?” Two Montgomery County state representatives, Marcy Toepel and Kate Harper, sought to answer that question in the recent bill.
Throughout Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester Counties, many of the large farms and public gardens were donated to public use by prominent families. In order to protect these from becoming large housing developments in the future, there were restrictions placed on each property’s deed. This would limit the land to be used in a way that the families intended for years to come.
With rising populations, townships are forced to consider all options when expanding. In Lower Merion’s case, there are not many locations left in the area that could house such a large school facility. It’s easy to understand why municipalities turn to these grounds as a quick solution to a complex problem.
Conservation activists say that the bill ends a great threat to our cherished open space, and helps to clarify the rights of municipalities statewide. Natural Lands Trust is a major player in local efforts to preserve open space. “The new law proves the General Assembly’s commitment to land preservation and to standing with landowners willing to help us do that,” one representative stated.
In the future, school districts and local governments that wish to seize a conserved property via eminent domain must pursue court approval at the state level. This will likely discourage many municipalities from focusing on conserved land as “low hanging fruit” when considering new locations with which to expand.
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