School board moves to acquire 13 acres by eminent domain

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As the T/E School District faces increased student enrollment every year, the T/E Board of School Directors unanimously approved a resolution authorizing the beginning of an eminent domain action to acquire the neighboring Doyle-McDonnell nursery property.

The 13-acre tree nursery, located adjacent to Conestoga on Cassatt Road, reached a $5 million sale agreement with the home construction company Toll Brothers to develop the property into 85 residential townhouse units. Due to the land’s close proximity to the school, the district has shown long-term interest going back to 2002 in purchasing the property.

“The new space would provide the opportunity to meet additional student needs in a further phase of expansion. One likely scenario is the construction of athletic fields,” superintendent Richard Gusick said. 

After learning of the owner’s decision to sell the nursery, the district first tried and failed to negotiate a deal with Toll Brothers, then used eminent domain as a last resort to obtain the property. This right allows government entities, such as public school districts, to take or appropriate private property for public use with fair compensation.

At a special meeting held on Nov. 14, the school board directors, nursery owners, district leadership and residents of the Tredyffrin and Easttown Townships discussed their views on the use of eminent domain to acquire the plot of land. An appraiser for the district recently estimated the fair market price of the property to be $2.13 million, while a November 2018 appraisal provided by the nursery  valued the property at $2.92 million. According to district solicitor Ken Roos, the difference between the two appraisals comes down to differing views on the cost of potential development on the land.

“The distinguishing factor between the owner’s $2.9 million appraisal (and) the district’s $2.125 million appraisal is really just the difference of opinion by the appraisers on the cost of developing and building the properties to the point where they could be sold,” Roos said.  

Christine McDonnell, daughter of nursery owner Terry McDonnell, hopes the district will increase its current offer.

“All my life, I’ve wanted to follow my father’s footsteps. He would drag me through the city of Philadelphia and point out trees that they planted from our nursery here in Berwyn, and I knew I wanted to do that,” Christine McDonnell said. “There’s a value to this land, and I just ask that (the district) pays the fair price.”

At the special meeting, many residents seem to agree that the district should be a higher priority than Toll Brothers when selling the land. Former school board member Pete Motel recognizes the importance of this acquisition for the district.

“(The district is) wrestling with increasing enrollment, and also, the availability of land for school use is diminishing,” Motel said. “Back at the last major expansion and renovation of the school in 2002, we discussed possibly acquiring the nursery, but we were told at that point it was a going concern, and we dropped it. We did, however, say that if this ever changed hands, the school district should be the No. 1 buyer. It’s a matter of determining what the fair price is.”

The district plans to move into further negotiations to reach a deal with the McDonnell nursery.

“These are difficult decisions that we have to make. And one of the things I will say is, I’ve always been careful about using good discernment and good judgment,” school board president Reverend Scott Dorsey said. “We have to be also in consideration of our whole community, and do what’s in the best interest of everyone. But at the same time, I will look straight into the eyes of the owners and the family and say, my hope is that we can come to some fair market conclusion that will be good for everyone, including all the citizens of our community.”