New Garden to use open space funds to acquire St. Anthony in the Hills
By Richard Gaw
Following nearly an hour of public comment that fluctuated between overwhelming support and hard questioning, the New Garden Township Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to pass a resolution that commits the township to use money from its' open space fund to acquire the 137.5-acre St. Anthony in the Hills, for the purpose of eventually converting the property to a township park.
The decision was reached at a public hearing held on March 19 at the New Garden Township building. Currently, the township has a letter of intent filed with the owner of the property, St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Wilmington, but does not yet have an agreement of sale. The township's next step will be to negotiate an agreement of sale with St. Anthony's, and bring the agreement of sale back to the public at a future board meeting, for consideration and approval by the board.
While the purchase amount of the proposed expenditure was not disclosed at the hearing, it was shared that the open space fund balance currently stands at $1.97 million. The fund earns about $400,000 every year trough the township's earned income tax.
The hearing was dotted with comments that said that the acquisition of a large chunk of open space will allow it to remain free of development; honor the dedication of Father Roberto Balducelli, the parish priest who conceived, helped build and operated the property as a sanctuary for inner city children; and add to the quality of life in the township.
It also heard from some in the audience who asked the supervisors why the township was committing itself to a property that has potential liabilities, no immediate concepts for its use on the table, and a crumbling infrastructure that is badly in need of repair.
“It's a white elephant with a lot of needs,” one audience member said.
Board Chairman Randy Geouque said that although no final determination for the park's immediate future has been determined, “our ultimate goal is to use property as open space that can be used by anyone in the community,” he said. “During the negotiation process, it's understanding what the assets are as well as the liabilities, in order to determine the facility and maintenance needs for the property.
It's too soon to know what that dollar amount [of maintenance and repair on the park] is going to be. The board has walked [the property] extensively, and there's a lot of clean-up that's going to need to occur. It's going to be a work in progress for a considerable amount of time.”
One audience member asked Geouque why the township was investing in a second township park.
“We already have one park,” he said. “Why do we need a second park?”
Part of the reason for the purchase, Geouque said, is environmental. Because the property has streams that flow into the headwaters of Broad Run Creek and other creeks that eventually drain into the White Clay Preserve, “any time you can protect your waters, it is going to be beneficial, not only to the residents, but to the township,” he said.
Although part of the township's intention to purchase the property is steeped in addressing environmental concerns, there was confusion expressed at the meeting that the use of the word “park” implies to some a vision of playgrounds and ball fields, rather than the use of the word “preserve,” which is more descriptive of environmental conservation.
Perhaps the most vocal opposition to the likely acquisition of St. Anthony in the Hills was from former supervisor Robert Perrotti, who told the supervisors that he feared that the township's vision for the property will wipe away Father Roberto's dream for the property.
“His dream was that this would continue on, and obviously, it's not going to continue on, and that's a misfortune for his legacy,” Perrotti said.
He also said that the township has failed to take into consideration the huge costs that are projected in order to repair erosion problems and sewer systems, as well as address potential contamination problems caused by dumping by contractors.
“I am Catholic myself,” Perrotti said. “I don't know why the Catholic Church purchased that property in Pennsylvania, and now all of a sudden they want to unload it. It's not New Garden Township who should be bailing out the Catholic Church.”
There is widespread speculation that the reason the Wilmington parish is looking to sell St. Anthony in the Hills has to do with its need to get its financial house in order and sell off some of its assets in order to do so. As widely reported, the parish is currently steeped in the controversy of its hefty increases in annual subsidies that are being levied on Padua Academy for the use of its campus facilities in the coming years. The fee was first assessed in the 2016-17 school year at $40,000, has more than doubled to $90,000 in the current academic year, and is projected to be $240,000 by the 2020-21 academic year. Padua Academy Principal Cindy Mann was fired last week for her refusal to approve these subsidy increases.
“The Catholic Church has no relevancy in this transaction,” Geouque replied. “If this property was owned by anyone else and they were willing to sell it to us, we would be willing to entertain that agreement. The township is not bailing out the Catholic Church. We're doing what we feel is right for the township.”
The township was also criticized for entering into the acquisition of the property with a “buy-it-first-plan-it-later” approach. Township Manager Tony Scheivert referred to the recent history of the negotiations with the parish, which date back to 2015, when the parish wanted to purchase the property and place a conservation easement on it.
“Up until six to eight months ago, we weren't doing any planning because it was for a conservation easement,” Scheivert said. “St. Anthony was going to take care of everything, and the township wasn't going to have that responsibility. so I wasn't prepared to take over the property, ownership-wise. We got a call a few moths ago, and we were then informed that they were no longer interested in a conservation easement, and that they wanted to sell the property.
“I had to go back to the board and say, the conservation easement has been pulled off the table. Do we want to purchase the property?'”
As the public hearing ended, Randy Lieberman, a member of the Open Space Review Board, compared the potential effects of the property ultimately being developed, versus it being preserved in perpetuity.
“I could go with every negative possibility if a 100-unit development is developed there,” he said. “Traffic jams. Crime. Trash. Our schools will need to expand in order to accommodate [increased population]. So what's the cost, and what's in it for everyone in Landenberg? Quality of life, guaranteed.”
Geouque assured the audience that once the township enters the final negotiation agreement phase, residents will be fully informed about what the township plans to do with the St. Anthony in the Hills property.
“We're not going to go into this blind, but do our due diligence,” said supervisor Pat Little. “We are in the process of getting there.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.