The commissioners voted, 4-3, against the rezoning, but said they were not opposed to the facility or the company that would run it, Atria Senior Living.
"I think Atria in Springfield Township is a win. I'd love to see it," said Commissioner Glenn A. Schaum. "But we, in my opinion, cannot move forward with Atria without knowing something more definite . . . for the back."
Commissioner Jeffrey T. Harbison said the proposal was not an adequate trade-off: "a tripling of population density for a net 3.5 percent increase in open space." But he agreed that Atria would be good for the township and said, "I hope they will reapply."
Commissioner Robert E. Gillies Jr., the most vocal proponent of the rezoning, said it would be shortsighted to deny a well-regarded company that would provide much-needed services, well-paying jobs, and tax revenue to the township.
"Atria has already said they are not going to stick around for an indefinite period of time," he said. "We have 7,300 homes that pay property taxes. They will all see a positive impact if we approve it and a negative impact if we don't."
Ross Weiss, an attorney representing property owner Frederick C. Tecce, had no comment after the vote. Tecce can proceed with building the 52 homes, or return to the board with another proposal.
Tecce has been trying to sell or develop the 42-acre property - which was his family's estate - for more than a decade.
The neighbors, who formed a group called Friends of the Springfield Panhandle, said they were optimistic that they could raise enough grants and donations - they estimate $2 million - to purchase about 30 acres at fair market value. The land would then be turned over to a trust and possibly annexed to Wissahickon Valley Park.
Although several commissioners said they liked the neighbors' proposal, they said it was up to the owner to decide how to move forward.