Thanks to a staggering groundswell of support—consisting of vocal community members, township officials, members of the Pennsylvania legislature, the Lower Merion Conservancy, and many others—Natural Lands’ Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden is no longer at risk of being developed.
This past spring, the Lower Merion School Board announced it had targeted the 42-acre Villanova estate as a possible site for a new middle school and sports complex. Despite the property being protected by a conservation easement, the School Board was prepared to seize it using eminent domain. Tuesday morning, the Lower Merion School District announced that it had identified an alternative location for its ballfields and thus would end consideration of Stoneleigh.
The district’s threat to seize the public garden prompted Natural Lands to launch the #SaveStoneleigh awareness campaign. In response, nearly 40,000 people signed an online petition, 3,000 households displayed “Save Stoneleigh” signs in their yard, and thousands sent messages of concern to the Lower Merion School Board. Some 350 residents attended a May School Board meeting wearing crimson Save Stoneleigh t-shirts.
“Unfortunately, saying ‘no’ to the school district wasn’t enough,” said Natural Lands President Molly Morrison. “But the overwhelming response of the community—from Lower Merion and far beyond—sent a clear message: taking any inch of Stoneleigh would be a devastating loss… one that must be avoided at all costs.”
In late June, the Pennsylvania legislature passed House Bill 2468 by wide margins and it was quickly signed it into law. The new law requires that entities like school districts and local governments seek court approval before taking property by eminent domain if it is protected by a conservation easement. Prompted by the threat to Stoneleigh, this extraordinary legislative success was a result of the leadership and determination of the Bill’s original sponsors: Representatives Warren Kampf, Kate Harper, and Marcy Toepel, along with Senator Bob Mensch and a host of bipartisan supporters.
Perhaps best known for the iconic hare sculpture located near the intersection of Spring Mill and County Line Roads in Villanova, Stoneleigh was once the beloved home of the Haas family. Following the deaths of John and Chara Haas—whose ashes are scattered on the property—in an extraordinary act of generosity, the estate of John Haas donated all of Stoneleigh to Natural Lands in 2016. After a two-year period during which Natural Lands undertook renovations to convert the former private estate to a public garden, Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden opened to the public in May, 2018.
Since opening its gates, Stoneleigh has welcomed thousands of visitors who’ve come to stroll the garden paths, admire the towering trees, and take inspiration from native garden design—all free of charge.
“At last, we can be assured that Stoneleigh will remain a place of beauty and joy for generations to come,” said Molly Morrison. “This has been a trying few months. However, we have been heartened by the remarkable public support for Natural Lands and Stoneleigh. It has been a powerful reminder that our communities’ green spaces are beloved, and that there is a large and passionate constituency ready to stand in their defense if needed.”
Natural Lands is hosting an event to celebrate Stoneleigh’s bright future; all are welcome. For those with “Save Stoneleigh” signs on display in their yards, there will be “SAVED!” stickers available for pickup that can be affixed to the yard signs. (They’ll also be available for pick up in the Stoneleigh Welcome Kiosk beginning Tuesday, December 4, for anyone who cannot attend the celebration event.)
Stoneleigh Saved—A Community Celebration
Sunday, December 2, 1:00 – 3:00 PM (remarks at 2:00 PM)
Cookies and light refreshments will be served.
The event is free, but space is limited and pre-registration is required.