Nature at crossroads

Posted: June 17, 2007

It is the largest privately held undeveloped land in the city, a 364-acre relic of Philadelphia's Victorian past, when wealthy businessmen could acquire and bequeath vast swaths of land.

The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education is what it's called today, but in the late 19th century it belonged to one man: Henry Howard Houston, a railroad freight magnate who died in 1895, leaving it in trust for his grandchildren.

Two of those grandchildren, Eleanor Houston Smith and Margaret Houston Meigs, inherited the Upper Roxborough tract in 1964 and used it to create the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center, a nature preserve where the public could glimpse a semblance of the first settlers' Philadelphia.

But change is afoot at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, or SCEE, as its trustees rebranded it, and not everyone is happy.

Trustee Eleanor Smith Morris was unhappy enough to sue in Philadelphia Orphans' Court, contending the center is violating its original charter to preserve the land as an oasis of nature. The changes should be put to a judge, she maintains, and, if not approved, reversed.

It's old vs. new: passive nature preserve vs. a nature area actively involved in education and research in environmental science.

Morris was sailing home to Scotland and could not be reached. But her attorney, James F. Mannion, said the trustees should adhere to the charter or properly amend it.

John Howard, an architect and chairman of the trustees, said Morris' lawsuit could be "catastrophic."

To survive in the increasingly competitive nonprofit world, Howard said, the center must be more connected to its community and environmental science and research.

"We have to get back on the cutting edge," he said.

Among the changes Morris' lawsuit seeks:

Evict Green Woods Academy charter school. Since 2002, the center has leased most of its education building to the award-winning charter school, which has added two modular classrooms. But the school's presence has also curtailed the building's use by many community groups that had long considered the center their home.

Cancel a planned bike path through the center with a connection to the Schuylkill River Trail between Valley Forge and the city.

Block several development proposals the trustees are considering to illustrate and promote sustainable energy uses, including a utility-size solar-energy farm on two to five acres of grassland under existing Peco Energy power lines along the Schuylkill.

Morris' petition might be dismissed as the desperate act of a lone trustee who cannot move the board in the direction she wants.

She may be a lone voice, but Morris, 71, is not without pedigree. A retired professor of urban design and environmental planning at the University of Edinburgh, she is also Eleanor Houston Smith's daughter.

In a March letter to members, Morris insisted that she did not oppose public schools but the changes in the center's original charter.

Morris wrote that her parents had intended the center to be used by "adults and children in the five-county Philadelphia metropolis and not for a small number of 200 children in the Roxborough neighborhood."

Morris has support outside the center boardroom.

The changes have riled neighbors and sent local bloggers into overtime.

"What they're doing is not acting as a nature center," said Judy Stepenaskie, immediate past president of the Residents of Shawmont Valley Association. "They really are abandoning their program of nature education."

It's difficult to envision the world out of which the Schuylkill Center was born.

The land was much larger than today's 364 acres. It stretched from Chestnut Hill to the Schuylkill. It was acquired by Houston and other Pennsylvania Railroad executives, who founded Chestnut Hill and other communities as they extended the rails.

There was nothing grass-roots about the Schuylkill Center's founding. It was noblesse oblige: Smith and husband Lawrence M.C. Smith; Meigs and son Henry H.H. Meigs; Allston Jenkins, a founder of the Natural Lands Trust; and Raymond S. Green, president of Franklin Broadcasting Co., owner of the former classical music stations WFLN-AM and FM.

But by 1990, center officials began to realize how dramatically their world had changed. For one thing, they could no longer depend on the largesse of a storied, affluent Philadelphia family.

Margaret Houston Meigs died in 1970 at age 79. Eleanor Houston Smith died in 1987 at 77.

"There was no real financial plan," Howard said. "At the end of the year, she [Smith] would just write a check."

By the time Howard started volunteering at the center later in the '90s, he said, "there was feeling that over time the center had lost its edge."

New trustees, some recruited from business and academia, pressed for change.

A new master plan recommended physical changes to the center and a new focus on "tackling the pressing environmental problems facing our communities today."

One of the first changes involved the center's role in environmental education. For years the center was known for the public school curriculum it developed. Training teachers and their students, the curriculum made field trips by city students the basis for in-class teaching of environment issues.

But by the late '90s, field trips and teacher training had largely withered along with the city school budget.

So the trustees embraced the idea of an on-site charter school. It provided lease revenue, Howard said, and center staff taught Green Woods science classes.

The next initiative did not go over well. Three years ago, the trustees decided to sell 24 acres across Hagys Mill Road from the main center property for model "green" residential development.

But neighbors, many of whom long viewed the center as an untouchable private wilderness, erupted at the idea, and it was dropped.

The solar-power proposal has had a similar reception.

Morris' lawsuit could make the entire debate academic.

The suit, filed in October, maintains that all the center changes - including the change of name - should have been taken first to an Orphans' Court judge for a hearing.

"Nobody has the right to make this decision for the court," Mannion said. "Not the trustees, not Mrs. Morris."

Howard disagreed, saying lawyers had assured him that the changes were properly done by the filing of amended articles of incorporation with the state.

Orphans' Court Judge Joseph D. O'Keefe has set an Aug. 14 conference with the lawyers, but there is no indication how long resolving the dispute will take.

In the meantime, Howard said, the lawsuit has hurt.

"It's seriously jeopardized our ability to raise money at all," he said. It has also made it impossible for the center and Green Woods to plan, and has cost the center volunteers.

"People volunteer because they want to feel good about themselves," Howard said. "It's difficult to bring in new people when you're being sued."


To read the suit filed by Eleanor Smith Morris,

go to

http://go.philly.com/schuylkill.


Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.

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