School district seizes golf course

Pat Young, a coowner of the Meadow Brook Golf Club, sits in the clubhouse at the 80-year-old course. The Phoenixville Area School District is seizing the site through eminent domain to build an elementary school.
Pat Young, a coowner of the Meadow Brook Golf Club, sits in the clubhouse at the 80-year-old course. The Phoenixville Area School District is seizing the site through eminent domain to build an elementary school. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 04, 2013

Phoenixville's Meadow Brook Golf Club will close in days. But the 80-year-old business hasn't scheduled an auction or liquidation sale.

Last week, lawn mowers were still parked in the barn. Liquor bottles filled a shelf behind the bar. Pressed polo shirts hung in the pro shop.

The family that has owned the property for more than a century says there is no time for a sale. On Nov. 14, the Phoenixville Area School District voted to invoke eminent domain and seize the property for a new school - without informing its owners beforehand.

The move was unpopular, unusual - and legal. State law only requires notice after eminent domain has been approved.

The loss of the golf course won't reshape the community, impoverish the owners, or set a precedent. But it offers a glimpse into a practice used commonly by utilities that need land but rarely by school districts.

School district officials say the parcel, which will be the site of an elementary school and early-learning center, is critical because of its size, location in the district, and position next to the middle and high schools, allowing the district to create a single campus.

Meadow Brook's owners say they found out about the seizure through the newspaper. They were given 30 days to appeal or lose their property. Their attorney, Bill Hagner, said even a successful appeal probably would not force the district to change course.

"The thought of one of the school board members or anybody walking into this house and walking through this house absolutely makes my skin crawl," co-owner Pat Young said last week of the 18th-century homestead that sits at the entrance to the nine-hole course on State Road.

School administrators say such a statement is disingenuous.

The family had been willing to part with the approximately 50-acre property, but was unwilling to come down from the $8 million asking price - more than double the most recent assessment, the administrators say. The district offered $5 million for the site, which was the most appealing of 95 tracts considered, administrators say.

The district has valued the land at $3.725 million; the family is seeking its own evaluation. A judge could decide what they are ultimately paid.

The property and house are owned by a group of family members, including 88-year-old Joanne Campbell-Brown, whose great-grandparents bought the land in 1896. Young, her niece, lives in Virginia. Her nephew Bruce Campbell also owns the property and owns and operates the business, which employs about nine part-time workers.

District superintendent Alan Fegley said the family members had solicited offers from developers. He said they and the district had gone to the negotiating table several times over seven years and that eminent domain had come up, though not recently.

"We made it very clear that the time was running short, and we needed to move forward with an acquisition of ground," said Stan Johnson, the district's executive director of operations. "For the family to say that they had no idea, it just surprises me."

When the district's school board voted last month, its agenda listed the action as "land acquisition" without naming Meadow Brook.

Fegley said lawyers for the district, which covers Schuylkill and East Pikeland Townships and the borough of Phoenixville, advised the board not to use the term eminent domain, but he declined to say why.

That's legal under Pennsylvania law, according to attorney Mike Faherty, the state's representative to the Owners Counsel of America, a group of experts in eminent domain.

Faherty said statistics of property claimed through eminent domain are not kept. But its use is driven by demand. The state Department of Transportation seizes land weekly for transportation projects, he said. Municipalities might consider the move once in decades.

When a governmental body approves eminent domain, state law requires property owners to be notified within 30 days of the vote, Faherty said. The owner then has 30 days to appeal before ownership is transferred.

Lawyer Bill Blake, who has written a textbook on eminent domain, said that even in states that require prior notice, listing "land acquisition" on an agenda "would probably pass."

"Sometimes it's quite common for public bodies to not want to give notice that will invite dissension, that will invite people appearing and objecting," Blake said. "Now, are they trying to hide it? Sometimes they try to not say any more than they have to."

Blake said that when a land owner convinces a judge that proper notification was not given, it only restarts the eminent domain process.

"What good does it do to challenge it and make them start over? You're just going to get the same result a few weeks or months later," he said.

Hagner said his family is still deciding whether to appeal. Young said she believes that move would only delay the inevitable.

In an interview at the club one morning last week, Young said her family solicited offers to sell the property about five years ago, but they had only been willing to part with it for what they considered the right price at the right time. All the offers were too low, she said.

Now, she's angry that the district is using those discussions to say they were "willing sellers."

"It's one thing to have something taken away," she said. "It's another thing to decide you're willing to give it up."

That morning, Jack Kasznel of Berwyn stopped by to pick up his hand cart at the club where he has golfed with a group of seniors every Tuesday for the past decade. Kasznel said they like the course because it's quiet and quaint.

"It's just perfect for a lot of guys," he said, sipping coffee. "Nine holes. We can play four if we want to."

The district hopes to break ground late next year, but expects getting township approvals will delay the opening of the elementary school to 2017.

Having the district's three schools in close proximity will offer benefits from sharing maintenance staff to using existing bus routes, Fegley said. He said the biggest impact will be on education.

Students who are advanced for their age will be able to walk next door for class at a higher grade, he said. And high school students who are taking education classes through a partnership with Rosemont College can gain firsthand experience assisting in elementary classrooms.

"The education value for me is key here," Fegley said.

If the family does not appeal, the district will takeownership on Dec. 15.

Young said she thinks the family would have to vacate the premises that day. But Fegley said the district is willing to arrange their move-out date.

He also said the district would not tear down the homestead, which has been used as an office and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Young said she was glad to hear the house would be preserved. She's not so sure about her family.

"I'm kind of in shock, and I have trouble focusing on any one thing," she said, "because it hit us so out of the blue."


tnadolny@phillynews.com

610-313-8205

@TriciaNadolny

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