Montco mansion conflict may finally be settled

Posted: August 17, 2013

A decadelong legal battle over the historic 44-acre Maybrook estate in Lower Merion Township could, at long litigation last, be nearing an end.

This week, the Narberth Borough Council voted, 6-0, to accept a settlement with Merloc Partners, the property's owner, that would end the lawsuit.

If a Montgomery County Court judge signs off on it and the township gives the development plan its final blessing, Merloc can proceed to build a complex of 250 apartments on the property near the Wynnewood train station.

"It's a great thing to clean the slate and have no litigation," Narberth Solicitor Marc Jonas said. "This could have been another four or five years of litigation."

Merloc, in a statement, said it "believes that reaching an amicable resolution of this litigation with Narberth Borough is a positive step towards the completion of a new residential community."

Others remain concerned.

"I think we are truly at the epicenter of overdevelopment," said Wynnewood resident Teri Simon, a former member of Lower Merion's planning committee and a current member of the Wynnewood Civic Association.

The 20,000-square-foot, 35-room Maybrook mansion was built in 1881 by the distiller and financier Henry C. Gibson. His family owned it until the 1950s, when it was sold to the developer and philanthropist John W. Merriam. Merriam split off a piece of the land and built the Thomas Wynne Apartments.

Merriam died in 1994, and the property eventually passed down to his second wife's son, Robert Lockyer, who heads Merloc Partners.

The legal wrangling began about 11 years ago, as Merloc's plan to construct two four-story buildings with 250 apartments was winding through Lower Merion's approval process.

Though the property rests entirely in Wynnewood, in the township, its eastern border ends at North Wynnewood Avenue - which is in Narberth.

Narberth officials and residents were concerned about increased traffic in the area, especially from the North Wynnewood side.

So, in 2002, the Borough Council passed an ordinance regulating driveways and the amount of traffic that could pass on them - which threw a roadblock into Merloc's plans. In 2003, the developer filed suit to overturn the driveway ordinance.

Since then, legal fees on both sides probably have reached into six figures, an observer speculated. Issues in the case have gone up to the state Supreme Court.

The case finally was set to go to trial at the end of July, when Judge Thomas P. Rogers urged both sides to use a mediator. That process produced the proposed settlement.

The development plans remain largely the same. There would be no more than 250 "dwelling units" in the new buildings, six units elsewhere on the property, and two apartments in the mansion itself. A community center also would be in the mansion.

About 22 acres of open space would remain, with Merloc required to build three recreation paths open to the public.

The developer would apply to use Penn Road for street addresses, so GPS devices and Internet mapping sites would provide directions to the development via Wynnewood, not Narberth. Merloc also would have to regulate the flow of service and delivery trucks that go into the new development and the Thomas Wynne Apartments.

The proposed settlement requires Merloc to contribute $325,000 to Narberth's general fund, and about $230,000 for the installation of a traffic light, a roundabout, or other improvement at the nearby intersection of East Wynnewood Road and North Wynnewood Avenue.

Lower Merion Commissioner Cheryl Gelber has been involved in the discussion for years. Away on a family trip, she said Thursday in a telephone interview that she had not read the plan and could not comment on it.

She cautioned that if the agreement required certain changes to the development plan, the commissioners would have to review it. If the plan remains the same as when a modified version of it was approved in 2003, the final township approval would be an administrative matter in the Building and Planning Department.

Still, an apartment development with a few walking paths was not exactly the vision Gelber had of how the "gem" of a property could best be used for those who live near it.

"What I would be happy about is if Narberth and the township had the money to preserve this open space, the largest piece of open space in the eastern part of the township. . . .

"It's a shame the whole thing could not have been preserved as a park."


Contact Carolyn Davis at 610-313-8109, cdavis@phillynews.com, or @carolyntweets on Twitter.

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