Penn, so far, has obliged. The university is seeking to divide the property into seven lots, but no new buildings would be constructed. The township Board of Commissioners in August gave those plans the nod, with one condition: Penn must dig deep into its old deeds and prove that it has the right to use Ottenger Lane, a private road that leads to the estate's main house.
About six families in nearby properties already use the road; Penn wants to put three additional driveways on the narrow, gravel lane and to make that the main entrance to the manor house.
When neighbors bristled over use of the road, and subsequently filed an appeal of the commissioners' decision with the Montgomery County Court of Common Please, progress stalled on the unusual development. The question now: Can all the groups interested in preserving this gem master a settlement?
"It's a great plan," acknowledged James Maguire, president of the Ottenger Lane Residence Association, "except for the Ottenger Lane part.
"We're not opposed to [the manor house] being restored to its historic value, or even a catering facility there if the township or anyone else wants to buy it," said Maguire, a 30-year resident of Ottenger Lane whose home is less than 2,000 feet from the country lane. "We are against shifting the traffic to Ottenger Lane when there are public roads already available."
Because Ottenger Lane is narrow, Maguire said, it's smarter to use Gravers Lane, Ellston Drive, Carlisle Road or Baily Road, which are all public roads. So Penn now must swing its efforts into proving what it says is an existing right.
"Penn has been trying to preserve the site as it was designed and the university has always had the right to use Ottenger Lane," said Edgar Scott, a real-estate broker handling the sale of the property. "Now we're slogging along in the trenches trying to get the proof."
And the time-consuming and expensive research is delaying Penn's efforts to close some of the estate lot sales.
"We are very anxious for them to move forward," said Peter Lapham, a potential buyer and executive director of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society. Lapham plans to purchase a 16th-century English cottage on the estate, but he and his wife have not signed an agreement.
"We understand it's a difficult situation, but we believe the neighbors are jeopardizing the estate" because of the appeal, Lapham said. "We're planning to use it as a residence and preserve it with little change . . . but we would not go through with this if the service drive [off of Gravers Lane] was the main entrance."
Ottenger Lane access is favored, Scott said, because Lapham and another potential buyer would be adversely affected if the road leading to the estate was used. The Gravers Lane entrance is not wide enough, he said, and widening it would require cutting down an alley of mature trees. Ottenger Lane is better designed for traffic because "there is more of a capability to make it bigger if needed."
When murmurs about selling off the estate first surfaced, it was the English manor house on a 12.6-acre portion of the grounds that was at the center of debate, not the roads. Penn had planned to change the zoning and sell the house for a low-impact commercial use.
Instead, because some residents opposed that idea, the university said it is now seeking a single-family buyer for the manor house, Scott said. "It seems like nothing we do is good enough," he said. Some of the estate's neighbors, however, have not only supported Penn's plans but put the muscle of investment behind their approval.
"It's been our understanding that there were three parcels that neighbors would be purchasing" as an extension of their own backyards, said Daniel Clifford, chairman of the Zoning Hearing Board.
Commissioner M. Jane Roberts, who voted against the plan in August, said that except for the intent to use Ottenger Lane for access, the plan is "exciting and wonderful and would change the property so little." Roberts' ward includes the estate.
And although Springfield Township "took a long, hard look at the property last winter," the rumors that it plans to buy the manor house are unfounded, Scott said.
"We've pulled away as a prospective buyer," Township Manager Donald Berger confirmed.
But Penn has always known that Springfield was waiting in the wings to buy the manor house "if the circumstances were right and the numbers were right," Township Solicitor Jim Garrity said.
The house, donated to Penn in 1971 by Louise Sinkler, is valued at $1.5 million, Scott said. Built in the 1920s, it comes with 12,000 square feet of living space, more than 20 bedrooms, and a 1,000-year-old door from Mulcheny Abbey in Somerset, England.
Maguire and the Ottenger Lane residents have hired an attorney because, the five homeowners say, Springfield officials had no right to approve the subdivision. No date has been set for the court hearing.
Maguire said he really wants to avoid a lawsuit. "We want to assure the university we have no ax to grind."