Couple sues Pennsylvania district to block land condemnation for middle school

Feb. 13, 2019
The Lower Merion district voted last year to condemn the 10.6-acre tract to provide playground space for a planned middle school.

The owners of a 10.6-acre tract near Villanova University in Pennsylvania are suing to block the Lower Merion School District from acquiring their land through condemnation. reports that the property owners, John Bennett and his wife, Nance DiRocco, contend that the district's vote last year to condemn the land has thwarted a more lucrative sale of the land to Villanova.

The Lower Merion School District wants the property so it can provide playing fields for a proposed middle school it wants to open in 2023.

The owners are challenging the condemnation in Montgomery County Court. The district has offered up to $9.95 million for the land.

In court papers, the owners say they were engaged in conversations with the university about a $12 million sale before school district officials went to Villanova's president, the Rev. Peter Donahue, to try to dissuade him from the deal.

The couple's lawyer says his clients want to see their property — site of a 20,000-square-foot 1920 mansion that has occasionally hosted Villanova events — sold to the university, but they are willing to sell to the school district for $12.9 million. The district has balked.

Kenneth Roos, the district’s lawyer, says a deal with the couple appeared to be in place last fall and “the agreement that they are now walking away from was the product of long and lengthy negotiations.” 

The dispute has hindered Lower Merion's efforts build a third middle school on a site that is too small and hilly for athletic fields.  

Meanwhile, several township officials question why the district is pressing for a new middle school on the western edge of the district when its greatest population growth is on the east side, bordering Philadelphia.

“We are doing this on the wrong side of the township," says Daniel S. Bernheim, president of the Lower Merion township supervisors.

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