PHOENIXVILLE — With a majority of board members feeling they were out of options for a site for a new school building, the Phoenixville Area School Board voted Thursday to acquire Meadow Brook Golf Club through eminent domain.
“I’m basically opposed to eminent domain. I don’t think it’s right for a government agency to take one’s home or business,” said school board member Betsy Ruch. “That being said, since Meadow Brook is a willing seller, had approached us and since their firm asking price is more than twice what it is worth, and since we have a responsibility to the taxpayer to get their money’s worth, I think we’ll have to go to eminent domain. I think we’ve reached the end of our rope.”
The board voted 7-2 in favor of proceeding with acquiring the site through eminent domain. Joshua Gould and Dan Cushing voted against it.
In eminent domain, a government agency can obtain a property through the courts for public use while paying a fair market value for it.
Everyone who voted in favor of the measure indicated they were reluctant, but shared sentiments similar to Ruch’s that there were no more options.
“We have to do something,” board member Paul Slaninka said. “We have gone through every parcel of land in this town and it boils down to Meadow Brook. And we do have a fiduciary duty to the taxpayers of our school district.”
Gould explained before the vote why he was opposed to using eminent domain at this stage.
“It’s not clear when you’ve hit the point where you have no other option,” Gould said. “Everybody on the board takes this very seriously and does not take this lightly. If you’re voting yes, then (you think) this is the only option left for us. I don’t think we’ve reached that point.”
Bruce Campbell, the superintendent owner of Meadow Brook, expressed his displeasure Friday afternoon to The Mercury.
“First of all, we didn’t want to sell it,” he said. “We didn’t want to sell it because everything is for sale at a price. They’re taking my job away, they’re taking other people’s jobs away.”
The school district maintained Thursday night that the golf course sought other buyers in the past and that they held negotiations with the course.
In September, Peter Brown, who said he was a member of the family that owns Meadow Brook, spoke to the school board during a meeting.
“At best, I think all that you were having was a discussion,” Brown said then
. “I don’t think those people were authorized to proceed further with anything other than a discussion.”
Campbell said Brown had no authority to speak on the matter.
“He can’t speak for everybody,” Campbell said.
There might be some discord among the owners, Campbell and other sources indicated.
Driven by increasing enrollment, the district has been searching for land to build a combined early learning center/elementary school since at least spring. For more than a decade, the district has tried renovating the old East Pikeland Elementary School or building a new one, to no avail.
When the district began negotiating with Meadow Brook in 2008, the owners of the golf club asked for $8 million, said Joe Antonio, the district’s director of continuous improvement. That is twice the assessed value of the property, Antonio said.
The district offered $5 million, but Meadow Brook never lowered its price, Antonio said. In September, negotiations broke down to the point
that Phoenixville effectively announced it was moving on.
Campbell said Meadow Brook has been in the Brown family for 80 years.
“I’m 62. I’m not going to find a job,” he said. “None of (those in the district) are thinking of anybody but themselves.”
The school board and district administration disagree, saying they’re making the move due to a duty to their taxpayers.
“At the end, the board has a fiduciary duty to not over-pay for the acquisition of property,” Antonio said.
Acquiring the property through eminent domain was a “last resort,” according to Antonio.
“We do need 350 seats in the next four years,” Superintendent Alan Fegley said.
“In the end, this is primarily a disagreement over fair value for the property,” Antonio said.
Ideally, the school district wanted a site that had more than 30 acres, was in or near East Pikeland, and was readily developable.
As such, the district narrowed it down to Meadow Brook and the former site of the Center for Arts and Technology-Pickering (CAT-Pickering).
Antonio said the CAT-Pickering site left “open-ended liabilities” for development costs that neither the Chester County Intermediate Unit or Phoenixville felt comfortable moving forward with.
Cushing, Irfan Khan, and Kevin Pattinson all expressed that they favored the CAT-Pickering site before the vote.
District Executive Director of Operations Stan Johnson said paperwork will be filed at the Chester County Courthouse Friday and served to the owners of Meadow Brook.
After that, there is a 30-day waiting period, during which the two sides may negotiate or a judge could intercede, Johnson said. At the end of 30 days, the property will belong to the school district and a process, which could take months, will begin in which a fair value for the sale of the property is determined by a court-appointed “board of view.”