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What's the Don Guanella forest worth?
The Commissioners harpoon Cardinal Crossing
By Ken Hemphill
Carlino would make millions; we would get the traffic
At the end of Peter Miller’s sketch plan presentation for his proposed regional shopping district at MNHS on August 13th, he was asked (on camera) by a commissioner how much he thought the “back” (i.e., the forest) was worth. “$25 million” he said, even though the total price for the entire 213 acres is currently $30 million. This bizarre response seems even more so now in light of the township engineer’s eight page preliminary report which found 51 deficiencies with his company’s so called “by right” plan. Miller’s estimate of the two residentially-zoned parcels’ value wholly ignores the topography and hydrology of the site. In fact, the $30 million price for the 213 acres also ignores environmental realities of the institutionally-zoned parcel which is sandwiched between wetlands and a stream on one side and wetlands and a high quality stream on the other.
August 31, 2018
"In a landmark environmental decision, a majority of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court justices established a broad interpretation of the Environmental Rights Amendment to the state constitution Tuesday, cementing in place the commonwealth’s role as trustee for public natural resources. The move is a victory for environmental advocates, and a defeat for the state and industrial polluters, who had argued that granting a wider interpretation could deter economic development.
Writing the majority opinion, Justice Christine Donohue said the prior interpretation of the amendment, which included a 3-part legal test and was in place for four decades, “strips the constitution of its meaning.” The opinion clearly defines the role of the state as trustee, which the court said is associated with fiduciary responsibilities." Quoted from PA State Impact
So what is the Don Guanella land actually worth?
There's just nowhere for the cars to go
Three recent cases involving the Environmental Rights Amendment
Carlino's proposal compared to other shopping centers
Another way of parsing this out would be for the developer to pay roughly $500,000 per acre for a total of $10 million (for 20 acres) and the county, et al., would pay $10 million for everything else. If the soccer association wanted in on this, they could leverage the tens of thousands of dollars they take in from hundreds of soccer families and borrow against that income stream to build fields on ten acres fronting Sproul. The county/township could give them the ten acres gratis. Given the long history of taxpayer subsidies and direct payments for these 213 acres, this would be a very fair deal and a way to atone for past mistakes.
Is $10 million an unfair price for the developer? We don’t think so. This slightly inflated value for the 20 acres in front would be recouped quickly from a commercial use which would earn large profits in perpetuity. The tax revenue would be generated from these 20 acres would go directly to the three taxing authorities instead of being diverted by a "Tax Increment Financing" scenario. The other $10 million price tag for the remainder of the property – which considers the unbuildable land and recognizes the taxpayer contribution towards the ownership of this property – is an amount that the county, township, and state could easily assemble. Carlino could even build the fields themselves and operate a sports complex for profit like United Sports in Downingtown... a very lucrative enterprise. Finally, by overpaying somewhat for the 20 acres, the developer would be compensating for the negative impacts a larger retail use in the front would have on traffic.
It’s time for Carlino and the Archdiocese to do the right thing and agree to this new price. If the diocese is not willing to do this, Carlino should exercise that option in their “option to purchase” agreement and walk away. But the diocese should understand that the price is coming down either way and they'll have to go through this process all over again. In the end, taxpayers should not have to pay for unbuildable land they subsidized and directly paid into for a century, and we should not have to suffer crushing new traffic from a regional shopping center. From a practical standpoint, too, wouldn’t it be better for the diocese to get a lower price now than to wait ten years to only possibly get the higher price? This win/win is a no-brainer.
And Archbishop Chaput could make all this happen with one phone call.
“The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.” (Article 1, §27)
If you’ve ever been in those woods, you’ve seen how little of the woods can accommodate development. Two streams flow through wide, very steep valleys that stretch across the breadth of the property. The Darby Creek Valley Association has petitioned the PA Department of Environmental Protection to reclassify one of these as “high quality.” (Of course, the diocese and Carlino are both vigorously opposing this because it would give the stream more protection.) These steeply sloped valleys, as well as various wetlands, hydric soils, and flood plains are restricted from development not just by township codes, and by state and federal laws, but most importantly by the Pennsylvania Environmental Rights Amendment. By our reckoning, something like 130 acres of the 213 acre site cannot be developed. It’s fair to say that these environmentally constrained acres have no profit value for the Carlino group.
The Archdiocese owes it to Delaware County taxpayers to make the preservation of the Don Guanella forest more affordable.
The 2013 PA Supreme Court plurality decision in the Robinson Township case held that Article 1, Section 27 (i.e. the Environemental Rights Amendment) also applies to municipal government and cautions them from acting in ways that that diminish public trust resources or unduly infringe on protected individual environmental rights. The interest of Individuals living downstream and individuals enjoying environmental benefits from this forest must be taken into consideration. According to the court, then, to comply with such constitutional restrictions on their authority, then, "municipalities must engage in pre-action environmental impact analyses to gauge the impact of a particular action on protected environmental rights and public natural resources." “Protection of environmental values...is a quintessential local issue that must be tailored to local conditions." Robinson Township, 83 A.d at 979
Some people have argued that the taxes assessed on a regional shopping district would help the community recoup lost revenue never paid by the Archdiocese. This wrongheaded thinking blindly ignores the horrific traffic impact from such a center and the resulting quality of life impairment. Carlino should not be allowed to permanently change the character of Marple because they agreed to overpay for Don Guanella.
Definitely not what the Archdiocese thinks
Carlino the Illusionist
Article 1, §27 was recently cited by a Delaware County Common Pleas Judge in the case the Beaver Valley Conservancy brought against Concord Township. As Judge Green ordered: "The Board of Supervisors, pursuant to Pa. Const. Art 1, §27, as trustees for the natural, historic, and scenic resources under the stewardship of Appellee Township, shall: 1. ensure the submitted application complies with the applicable laws and regulations affecting those resources; 2. ensure the submitted application avoids or appropriately mitigates adverse impacts upon those resources to the extent reasonably possible; and, 3. to the extent these impacts are not avoided, refrain from approving the Submitted application, where the Board of Supervisors determines the harm clearly outweighs the benefits of the Submitted application."
Carlino's 47 acre regional shopping district would bury Marple, Haverford, and Springfield in traffic. In other words, residents would be paying another huge price – in quality of life terms – so the Archdiocese can sell this subsidized forest at an inflated price and for Carlino's private profit.
Like Bruce Goodman before them, the Carlino group is willing to overpay for the Don Guanella property despite how much of the site can’t be developed, and they want the community to subsidize the purchase. To make their $30 million bid feasible, they're trying to push a disproportionate share of that inflated price and social costs onto the Marple, Springfield, and Haverford. They would do this in two ways: first, via the price to preserve the forest ($15 million) and, second, by the scale of the regional shopping district they’re trying to drop on Marple. This begs the question: how much is the Don Guanella property actually worth? First some background...
As you know, taxpayers paid higher rates for a century to cover what wasn’t being collected from property taxes on the Don Guanella land. When it became clear that the diocese planned to sell to developers, the county tax office assessed the property, and three taxing authorities issued bills to the Archdiocese in 2017. The diocese is already in fact delinquent on last year’s taxes to the tune of $1.3 million in principal, interest, and penalties.
Lost and unpaid revenue from Don Guanella is only part of the story, though, of how taxpayers have been compelled to subsidize the diocese. Taxpayers contributed tens of millions for operations at Don Guanella for more than 50 years, a fact which is not in itself objectionable since they were providing an actual community service for mentally disabled men. What we do find troubling is that taxpayers paid out more than five million to relocate and build these men new group homes at various parishes in the area. Some of the men were simply moved one hundred yards away, adjacent to O’Hara. Others had new group homes built at Notre Dame in Swarthmore and Our Lady of Charity in Upland, with others going to various residential homes. In each of these cases, taxpayers paid the bulk of the costs to build these new facilities. So as the diocese was trying to sell their taxpayer-subsidized land to a developer for a wildly inflated price, they were getting millions in taxpayer money to ready the site for sale. Despite the taxpayer’s largesse, the Archdiocese has continued to behave like they don't owe the community anything. Their refusal to do the right thing at Don Guanella is par for the course: for years, Marple Township and the County have made various attempts to buy large parts of Don Guanella for parkland and have been ignored.
Steep slopes, wetlands, streams, flood plains, and hydric soils make much of the Don Guanella unusable for a developer but immensely valuable for public recreation.
The Darlington Estate
Carlino's full court press
If you’re a developer, would you pay anything at all for land you couldn’t build on? So why has Carlino agreed to pay so much? Obviously to keep other developers out of the game by outbidding them and because they know taxpayers would help pay half the $30 million tab for the undevelopable land. Perhaps that’s why Peter Miller would have you believe the two residentially zoned tracts (139 acres, representing the bulk of the unbuildable acres) are worth $25 million. By grossly exaggerating the value, maybe he’s hoping to make $15 million price tag for land they can’t do anything with seem like a bargain. This may also explain why they suddenly care so much about preservation. They weren’t so magnanimous in Delaware when they got rezoning approval to build 700+ houses on the 145 acre Cavaliers Country Club (zoned for 200 houses) in New Castle County. Their plan there would leave no open space and would burden the area with very high density and traffic.
So what are the 213 acres worth? We believe a fair price for the land is $20 million. This works out to $240,000 per developable acre, with 20 acres along Sproul worth a lot more and the other developable (but constrained) 63 acres costing $158k/acre. The undevelopable 130 acres would be free, a belated thank you to taxpayers from the Archdiocese.
Marple's Commissioners don't just have their ordinances and state/federal laws to defend the fragile environmental resources at Don Guanella against Carlino; they have the Pennsylvania Environmental Rights Amendment, (Article 1, §27, PA Constitution).
Below are three recent court cases for them to cite in their defense of Marple's environment.