Destroying 203 acres for 10 acres of fields?

22 April 2016

His Holiness, Pope Francis
Apostolic Palace
00120 Vatican City  

Your Holiness,

Thank you for bringing your message of environmental concern on your recent visit to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. Your encyclical Laudato Si’ has already encouraged so many of us to see our “common home” as something to be valued and protected, not recklessly exploited and poisoned. To that end, and in the tradition of “thinking globally but acting locally,” we beg your intercession to help us stop the impending destruction of a large, Philadelphia-Archdiocese-owned forest in eastern Delaware County, Pennsylvania, just a few miles west of where you visited in Philadelphia this past September. This land was originally consecrated as part of Saints Peter and Paul Cemetery, and it is our understanding that the Archdiocese must obtain Vatican approval to sell it. We ask that Your Holiness withhold or withdraw that approval.

In 2014, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia entered into an agreement to sell 213 acres of mature forest in Delaware County, Pennsylvania to a developer who needs a colossal zoning change to intensively develop the entire parcel with 250 “multi-family” units and 1.15 million square feet of commercial space. Thousands of residents in the vicinity of the proposed development are shocked and deeply angered by “Cardinal Crossing’s” environmentally reckless scale which would clear cut an entire forest, regrade and level the entire site, and entomb the land under 5,000 parking spaces and 100 acres of impervious surface. This would visit terrible consequences on our quality of life, our health and that of our children.

This last point calls for urgent action since families in the region of your visit have just received some very bad news from the American Lung Association. The ALA found that we have been breathing some of the most polluted air in the United States, the cause of which has much to do with the loss of air-filtering forests in Delaware County, which was ranked 17th from the bottom in air quality among 3,143 counties nationwide. We cannot afford to lose any more forests let alone add the pollution from 37,000 new vehicle trips per day (from the developer's own estimate). Aside from filtering our air, forests, as Your Holiness knows, provide other essential ecological benefits like protecting our water quality, reducing downstream flooding, offering a place for outdoor recreation, and providing habitat for animals. Losing this forest would undo decades of progress made in cleaning up the Darby Creek (a major tributary to the iconic Delaware River) by adding massive volumes of polluted stormwater from parking lots and structures lying within a few feet of two feeder streams to the creek.

Your Holiness has said that we cannot continue to destroy our “common home” indiscriminately without dire results. And implicit in your encyclical is that we cannot add immense quantities of pollution to our local environment and not expect the health of our children to be diminished. Furthermore, how can we hope to encourage business and industry to follow the teachings of Laudato Si’ if the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will not? This is an opportunity for the Church to lead by example.  As Your Holiness has said: "Each of us has a personal responsibility to care for creation, this precious gift which God has entrusted to us."  

Your Holiness’ use of the phrase “common home” has significance beyond the original context of your encyclical since there are two important public ownership aspects of this land to consider. The first is that the public created and has been using trails in this forest for many decades. The second is that the Archdiocese has owned this land tax free since the early twentieth century (and we believe the parcel was donated to the Church). As a result, parishioners and other area residents paid higher tax bills to make up for what the Archdiocese was not paying. We don’t begrudge the Church its tax exempt status; we simply want the chance to keep the land open and accessible to the community which has borne the substantial part of the ownership burden.

We know that the Archdiocese needs to sell some property to continue its mission, but clear cutting 213 acres of forest does not keep with the teachings of your encyclical. Also, compared to the dozens of shuttered parishes in Philadelphia, the 213 forested acres in Marple Township represent a very small piece of the Archdiocese’s overall real estate wealth. However, this forest is a very big and important piece of Delaware County’s environment. Most importantly, we’re not asking the Archdiocese to give the land away. Given the many environmental considerations and the community’s century long contribution towards the Church’s ownership, we would hope that the Archdiocese accepts a reasonable price so that we can save this forest.  

In light of these truths, Your Holiness, we think it reasonable for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to sell this large forest to a consortium of interested conservation parties so that the generations who come after us may reap its benefits. We ask that you intercede with the Archdiocese and ask representatives of Archbishop Chaput to sit down with us to discuss a fair price to keep this land open, that is, if and when the current agreement of sale with the developer expires. We are not asking the Archdiocese to violate a legal contract – only to not enter into any new contracts or renew the current contract. (We believe June 9, 2016 is the expiration date of the agreement of sale.)  Unfortunately, our appeals and letters to the Archdiocese asking for this chance have not been met with enthusiasm. We are hoping that with your guidance the Archdiocese will come to see this forest as too important to be destroyed especially when groups are willing to raise the money to save it. This would be mutually beneficial for the Church, its parishioners, and all future residents of Delaware County.

We wish your Holiness good health and great success in your Papacy.

Delaware County residents of Save Marple Greenspace

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