A zoning dispute between Lower Merion Township and St. Joseph’s University nearly seven years in the making may finally be coming to a close.
A document filed on March 9 by the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas suggests that the university might be finally be allowed develop new ball fields at its Mcguire Campus (located at North Latches Lane and Berwick Road), a project that the university has been fighting for, and some Lower Merion residents have been fighting against, since 2008.
Expanding a Campus
St. Joe’s attempt to develop its Maguire Campus dates back to August 2005, when representatives for the university first appeared before the township’s Zoning Hearing Board.
The university wanted to expand the campus, which was owned by Episcopal Academy, with 21 buildings, 347 parking spaces and six athletic fields, according to court documents. After a number of hearings, the board approved the special exception.
In 2008, St. Joe’s filed a sketch plan for township approval that outlined the university’s plan to make changes to the campuses’ existing fields. The plan called for the formation of new baseball, soccer and hockey fields by combining existing fields, as well as artificial turf, a press box, retaining walls and bleachers.
Though the township board of commissioners approved the sketch plan in May 2008, the Merion Community Coalition objected the application, saying that the sketch plan constituted an expanded use on what the zoning board had initially allowed.
A Special Exception
According to court documents, township zoning officer Michael Wylie issued a letter in September of 2008 saying that the university’s sketch plan did in part constitute expanded use and that another exception would be needed. Both the university and the community coalition appealed to the zoning board.
After six months of discussion, the zoning board ruled that the plans to revamp the fields were, in fact, an expanded use of the initial exception.
St. Joe’s responded by taking the township to court over the issue, hoping that a Montgomery County Court would rule that the additional special exception was not warranted.
In October 2009, the court affirmed the board’s decision and denied the university’s claim, causing St. Joe’s to file an appeal. Court documents filed March 9 rule in favor of the initial court’s decision, saying, “that the trial court thoroughly and correctly analyzed these issues and this matter was ably disposed.”
If You Build It ...
Despite the court of common please holding up the initial ruling, St. Joe’s field improvements might still be coming to the Mcguire Campus.
According to township zoning officer Michael Wylie, "the universtiy has received Land Development approval for their proposed improvements to the Maguire Campus and is in the process of implementing them."
According to a zoning appeal from November 2010 posted on the township website, the zoning board has granted St. Joe’s an additional special exception “to install certain improvements to Mcguire Campus.”
The relief is based on specific conditions, including:
- Limiting the fields’ use to St. Joe’s and associates only: no community use
- Use of a proposed PA system is limited to player lineup announcements, in-game substitutions, the National Anthem and emergency announcements.
- Ball netting not be put up before February 15 for Spring sports and Sept 1 for Fall sports
- Parking is made available for all varsity games on the campus.
Had St. Joe's won its appeal, it is possible that the university could have gone forward with its expansion without the limitations imposed by the zoning board in 2010. However, since the court upheald the initial ruling, it would seem that, if the university wants to move forward with its expansion, it will have to do so under these terms, according Wylie.
"[St. Joe's] may appeal that denial to a higher court, but ... as of now, [the university] must comply with the last zoning hearing board decision," he said in an email.
The zoning hearing board’s next meeting is scheduled for Thursday, 7:15 p.m.