In October 2022, the mood in Lower Merion School District (LMSD) was tense. On one side, it was forcing the owner of Oakwell, an historic, 35-acre estate in Villanova, to sell his mansion to the school district by eminent domain and was threatening to clear cut the estate’s forest of heritage trees the following May to make way for an auxiliary middle school playing field. On the other side, residents, students, and conservationists were fighting to save what they viewed as a community treasure. However, on August 21, a meeting held by LMSD had an air of optimism. What has changed? Plenty. For starters, May came and went and not a single tree was removed.
“We have a new superintendent, Dr. Steven Yanni, and will have new school board members,” said Jamie Joy Singer, board member of the Lower Merion Historical Society. “The decision to take Oakwell by eminent domain was made two superintendents ago, and Dr. Yanni is very aware of the strong community interest in saving Oakwell. We are looking forward to partnering with him and the school board.”
Beginning last November, Singer led tours of Oakwell every Sunday until a “No Trespassing” sign appeared at the gate on May 31. “The crowds varied from 25 to well over 100 people. We had visitors in every kind of weather–snow, sleet, and rain,” explained Singer. “One magical moment in the middle of a tour we saw a bald eagle circling above our heads. How can you not want to save this place?”
What about the need for an athletic field? “Speaking as a former sports mom whose kids went to Lower Merion schools, sports are important, but not at the risk of destroying a beautiful place of history and biodiversity. You can build fields anywhere, but there is only one Oakwell,” Singer said.
When Oakwell activist Holly Manzone addressed Dr. Yanni and the school board she struck a conciliatory tone. Referring to LMSD’s 2018 decision to repurpose Oakwell, Manzone said, “It seemed like a good idea at the time, and I believe they acted in good faith.” Then, she pivoted. “It’s time to rethink that decision. We know there are alternatives. We know the cost is prohibitive. Dr. Yanni, you did not create the problem. But you can solve it.”
Another area resident, Julian Brightman, reminded the school board that the seizure of Oakwell happened before LMSD lost a $27 million taxpayer lawsuit last year as a result of claiming a multi-million dollar deficit when, in fact, it had a multi-million surplus. “In light of this, imagine instead what incredible fields for sports could be created if the board spends just a part of the untold amounts projected for disrupting and maintaining Oakwell on upgrades to the existing 309 acres of school and township parks at a much lower cost financially and environmentally,” Brightman suggested.
Wynnewood attorney James McLauglin also referred to the lawsuit settlement. “I advocate for taxpayers and proper stewardship of the money we taxpayers provide to you. Talking with others in the community, I am not the only one who sees a problem with a lack of transparency in the school district.”
“Last year, the Auditor General of the Commonwealth called the district’s movement of money between funds to raise taxes a ‘shell game,'” McLauglin stated. “Tonight, you will be voting on the approval of yet another enrollment study. Why? You had two such studies last year. Are you going to keep conducting studies until you achieve your desired result? Stop wasting taxpayer money,” he said. “As for the continuing Oakwell controversy, the expenditure of more than $13 million dollars for superfluous fields is ridiculous. Instead, the permanent preservation of Oakwell under a conservation trust represents an opportunity to preserve a vast tract of mature trees and gardens for the future undisturbed enjoyment of residents. Anything less than that is a legacy of destruction that you will have to explain to future generations of students and residents,” McLaughlin concluded.
A taxpayer petition is now circulating on Preserve Oakwell’s website demanding that LMSD take Oakwell off the table as a site for athletic fields to save taxpayers more than $23 million.
Adam Langley, associate professor of biology at Villanova University, crunched numbers for the school board. Not in dollars, but in carbon mass. “Last fall my class conducted a Bio Blitz to estimate the greenhouse footprint of the district’s plan to convert an existing forest to a sports complex,” he said. “Using standard methods based on U.S. Forest Service protocols, we converted the measurements to biomass and then to carbon mass that will be released from the destruction. Finally, we estimated how much CO2 would be taken up by replanting. Our estimate for net CO2 release is 4,640 metric tons over 15 years, the time frame scientists say is key to slowing climate change. Replanting has little effect over this time frame.”
While LMSD may wish to discount the Oakwell advocates who show up at board meetings, it is increasingly aware of the rising tide of support from township residents, students, and institutions. In February, the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office determined that Oakwell was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Natural Lands, which owns Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden, is in discussion with the school district in pursuit of an outcome for Oakwell that better honors the property’s natural resources and history. Villanova University is presenting Biodiversity in Our Backyard: The Oakwell Series, a free online program hosted by faculty members available at Grow Oakwell.
Then there is the media coverage. In addition to Hidden City’s early reporting last October, CBS News and The Philadelphia Inquirer weighed in, as did several community weeklies. But it was Maren Cohen, a senior at the Baldwin School, who captured national media attention when her Save Oakwell podcast won the New York Times Podcast award. Equally impressive, Noa Fohrer, a 2023 Lower Merion High School graduate, made a documentary film, More Than Just Some Trees, which was screened at Bryn Mawr Film Institute.
One year ago, the majority of township students knew little about LMSD’s intentions or its financial malfeasance. Now, they are well informed due to numerous articles published in their school newspapers detailing the district’s tax issues and advocating for the preservation of Oakwell. As a result, LMSD Oakwell Student Movement received the 2023 Go For The Green Award from the Lower Merion Township and Narberth Advisory Councils and the Shade Tree Commission.
Meanwhile, district employees cannot ignore demonstrations outside of their administration building during Fire Drill Fridays when Oakwell advocates hold up large signs that read, “HONK preserve Oakwell!”
Following the school board meeting, Dr. Yanni appeared upbeat. “The Lower Merion Board of School Directors has already announced a tentative plan, along with Lower Merion and Haverford Townships, that would allow Black Rock Middle School teams to have priority use of the polo field in Haverford Township,” he said. “I am optimistic that, if that agreement can be finalized, LMSD may be able to lessen the impact on environmental and historical assets, while also minimizing the need for additional transportation to ensure that students have adequate fields for their teams. I had the opportunity to visit Oakwell in mid-August and was able to see, firsthand, the natural and historical attributes of the site, which for so long was a private property. I can understand why some community members desire to see it preserved and open for public use.”
The key players in resolving the future of Oakwell, the zoning litigation lawyers whose actions prevented trees from being chopped down in May, were not in attendance at the school board meeting. “We prevailed before the Zoning Board hearing and are in settlement discussions,” said Philip Rosenzweig of Silverang, Rosenzweig & Haltzman, LLC. Rosenzweig represents five residents whose properties are adjacent to, or in the vicinity of, Oakwell. “Litigating a zoning issue is very expensive. If not for the lead claimant assuming a large share of the cost, the school board would have run rough shod over everyone,” he said.
Unlike Oakwell advocates, Rosenzweig’s clients are not trying to prevent LMSD from creating playing fields. “We are seeking to limit the project to no more than two fields and preserving almost all of the mature trees,” said Rosenzweig. I remain optimistic that negotiations with the school district will result in a deal that will minimize use of land, preserve trees, and many of the structures on the land.”