PHOENIXVILLE — Since the night its school board voted to acquire Meadow Brook Golf Club through eminent domain for a new school building, the Phoenixville Area School District has maintained that the club’s owners were “willing sellers.”
The Mercury, sister paper to the Phoenix Reporter & Item, recently obtained documents through a Right to Know request which detailed talks between the two entities.
According to Phoenixville Area School District Superintendent Alan Fegley, everything started between the two in 2011 when the district and Meadow Brook met to discuss drainage issues between the adjacent golf course and Phoenixville secondary campus.
Fegley said Meadow Brook expressed interest selling then but no agreement was reached.
OTHER POTENTIAL BUYERS
In documents obtained through more Right to Know requests, it appears that Meadow Brook solicited for possible buyers earlier than 2011.
A letter dated Sept. 13, 2010 bearing the signatures of supervisor owner Bruce Campbell and Joanne Campbell Brown, the matriarch of the family who owns the course, went out to both Schuylkill Township and Phoenixville Borough.
“The Campbell and Brown families, who are the shareholders of the corporation that owns the property, are in the process of considering future plans for the property, which may include its possible sale,” the letter reads.
“The purpose of this letter is to ascertain whether or not the Borough of Phoenixville may have any interest in acquiring the property (either alone or possibly in cooperation with other entities that may have interest, such as the Phoenixville Area YMCA, Phoenixville Area School District or Schuylkill Township,” the letter continues. “If you have any interest at this time or anticipate any need or interest for the property in the near future, please let us know so that we can take this into consideration in developing our plans for the future.”
Phoenixville Borough apparently did not respond to the letter.
Schuylkill Township, however, previously contacted the golf club about potentially coming to an agreement on a “conservation easement purchase” for the preservation of open space through the Natural Lands Trust.
“I’m reaching out to you because we are now in a position to provide selected landowners with several options to preserve desirable open space,” wrote Robert C. Mauch, the Schuylkill Township chairman of the open space commission in a Feb. 23, 2010 letter to Joanne Campbell Brown.
Meadow Brook’s letter soliciting for interest followed Sept. 13 and Sept. 23, Mauch responded with a letter to Campbell Brown and Bruce Campbell “expressing (the open space commission’s) continuing interest in exploring open space preservation options with Meadowbrook County Club.”
A meeting took place at some point and Mauch sent another letter to Joanne Campbell Brown and Bruce Campbell thanking them and indicating the township supervisors “support our continuing investigation of various options, including those that would include partnering with other entities.”
Those entities, Mauch indicated, were ones previously mentioned by Meadow Brook: the Phoenixville Area YMCA, Phoenixville Area School District and the Borough of Phoenixville.
Communications on the acquisition of the property seemed to end there concerning Schuylkill Township
Things picked back up in May 2013, according to documents obtained through the Right to Know request of the Phoenixville Area School District.
Pat Young, Bruce Campbell’s sister, emailed Fegley May 1, saying an article in The Mercury indicated the district was looking for a property to build its “new school” and had hired a company to do appraisals. The company was hired April 28 in a special advertised board meeting.
Earlier that year, the school district indicated that it planned to build a combination early learning center/East Pikeland Elementary School replacement to combat current high enrollment numbers with projections for more to come in the next several years.
“Bruce (Campbell) and I wondered if Meadow Brook is one of the properties you are considering,” Young wrote. “No one from the school district has contacted us and we are just curious.”
School Board President Joshua Gould emailed Young May 5 to set up an “informal” meeting with Meadow Brook’s ownership to talk things over.
Fegley told The Mercury last week that Young was the person they’d been told to consult in the past for any negotiations involving Meadow Brook.
Bruce Campbell said Young was not authorized to negotiate and was just meant to serve as a “go-between” with the district.
The meeting was slated for June 7 and Gould, in an email to Young, ran through what would likely be discussed.
“We are hoping to get a sense of whether your family is still interested in selling and, if so, we hope you and the other participants are ready and willing to discuss price,” Gould wrote June 6. “We are not looking for a protracted negotiation. We want to make a decision regarding land acquisition very soon and, obviously, a key input to that decision is the price we would pay for each property.”
Gould indicated the district assessed every property in the district of more than 20 acres and that the list had been “narrowed...down to a handful of potential sites, including Meadow Brook.”
An email around 10 p.m. June 7, well after the meeting, from Gould to Young indicated that Peter Brown, one of Joanne Campbell Brown’s sons, called Gould at home around 7 p.m. and expressed “surprise that we did not document our ‘offer’ and asked some questions about who initiated the meeting.”
“I told him it was an exploratory meeting and that the meeting came about after you asked Dr. Fegley for information regarding our vote to retain a company for appraisal services,” Gould wrote to Young.
“WHAT’S GOING ON?”
In an email sent to Gould June 24, Young opened by asking, “What’s going on?”
“There is talk all over Phoenixville that the school district is purchasing (Meadow Brook Golf Club),” she wrote. “People have started talking about putting their houses on the market because this will raise taxes. It is hurting our business!!”
Young said she believed the rumor was originating with the “teachers and employees of the district.”
Additionally, she said a survey being done on the property involved too much for the golf club’s operations, inclduign the placement of flags.
“To say the least, we are not a happy bunch,” she wrote. “This does not bode well for any sort of negotiation in price on our part.”
Fegley told The Mercury last week that the district pulled the surveyors off the site after that email. He said the process was more involved than the owners of Meadow Brook at first realized. According to Young’s email, they believed it was going to be done completely aerially.
“We cannot have those kinds of studies done during the business time of the year,” Young wrote in a June 26 email.
Early June 26, Gould replied to Young’s unhappy email saying that the board had a budget meeting June 30 and would discuss in executive session whether it would proceed with Meadow Brook or with “our other top option with whom we negotiated a price.”
Gould said he would assume the golf club’s price for its property was $8 million.
“After talking with Bruce (Campbell) and Scott (Brown, Joanne Campbell Brown’s son) this morning, our price is $8 million,” Young responded to Gould’s email. “We are not happy with the way we have been treated these past two weeks by the school district.”
She said another person called the golf course the night before about the rumor of the sale and expressed a desire to know who the other landowner was.
A day later, the district “received permission” from the Chester County Intermediate Unit to disclose that they were negotiating with them on the Center for Arts and Technology-Pickering campus’s 40-acre site.
By the time of the eminent domain decision Nov. 14, the district and the intermediate unit decided they could not come to terms with “open-ended liabilities” regarding the cost of land development at that site and who would foot the unknown bill for it.
Whoever started the sale rumors was never determined, according to both a Gould response email from June and Fegley last week.
“Since I have no evidence of rumors flying wildly around Phoenixville and since it appears to me that we have been open and honest in our communication with you, I am surprised at both your accusations and your refusal to negotiate,” Gould wrote in a response email June 26 to Young. “Your family admits that you regret not having accepted (Phoenixville Area School Dsitrict’s) offer from several years ago. I believe that you will regret it again if you do not negotiate with us now. You will get a better price from the PASD than you will get anywhere else.”
The deal Gould referred to extended beyond The Mercury’s current Right to Know request and details were not immediately available.
“Most of my family would like to see the school district end up with the property, but we cannot go any lower than $8 million,” Young replied at the end of another email the same day.
In a later email, Gould indicated he would tell the school board to not accept Meadow Brook’s asking price.
Bruce Campbell, speaking to The Mercury Friday, said “we always knew what we wanted to sell for.”
In a past interview with The Mercury, Campbell said “we didn’t want to sell” and that the school board was “taking (his) job away.”
He said last month that “everything is for sale at a price.”
When asked if he felt he misrepresented his family’s willingness to sell regarding past sale solicitations and talks with the district, he said “I do have the right to make up my own mind and I do have the right to change it.”
“(The property) was never on the market for $5 million,” which was the district’s last offer, he said. “Nothing less than $8 million.”
According to the district, an independent appraisal put the property’s “best-use” value at $3.725 million.
After the board met in its executive session June 30, Gould again emailed Young.
“The board agrees with me that (the school district) will not pay $8 million for the Meadow Brook property,” he wrote. “We are going to spend a few months working on planning and design concepts that could be applied to either site and continuing to work with the (intermediate unit) on the framework for a deal to purchase the 40 acres that they are offering. We are doing this so that you will have time to test the market with other potential buyers of Meadow Brook.”
He added, “We believe you will find that no one will pay $8 million.”
“Since we offered significant movement in going from our previous $4 million offer to our current $5 million offer, we need to see some movement from you before we will make any further offers,” he closed the email.
Then, Aug. 30, Gould emailed Young indicating the school district was withdrawing its $5 million offer and planning to move forward with land acquisition at a workshop meeting Sept. 12.
District Director of Continuous Improvement Joe Antonio announced publicly at that meeting that the district would no longer consider Meadow Brook.
At some point within roughly a month, however, Phoenixville did again consider Meadow Brook.
Oct. 18, a letter was hand delivered to Meadow Brook with Gould’s name at the bottom with an offer of $5 million for the Meadow Brook property.
“The enclosed offer should not be considered or construed as confirmation or indication that the school district views the fair market value to be any greater than the appraised value,” of $3.725 million the letter read.
A return letter dated Oct. 24 from Bruce Campbell and Joanne Campbell Brown indicated that they got the offer but “we are not in a position to accept the current offer of $5 million.”
“We believe that the property has significant advantages which warrant a price well in excess of $5 million,” the letter read.
They then requested that the district share when it would need the property by and the exact appraisal “and comparables that were used to determine the offer of $5 million.”
The letter suggested using the sale of Wood’s Golf Center for $27.5 million to Albert Einstein Healthcare Network in 2010. That property was 82 acres, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal, 32 acres more than Meadow Brook.
No further communication was indicated to have occurred through the Right to Know request.
EMINENT DOMAIN DECISION
At a school board meeting Nov. 14, the school board voted 7-2 in favor of acquiring Meadow Brook via eminent domain per administration recommendation. Gould was a vote against, saying he didn’t feel that they’d reached the point where they had no other options.
Since then, there has been some voiced opposition against the acquisition, particularly from family friend Andrew Hohorst and the Citizens for Liberty political action group.
A 30-day window for negotiation and legal action before the district took over the property started Nov. 15 and the district officially took control of the property Sunday.
The “fair market value” of the property will be established afterward by a court-appointed board of viewers.
When asked if the owners had filed any legal opposition, Bruce Campbell only said, “It’s all in the lawyers’ hands right now.”
Fegley said he’d heard nothing of legal action.
Campbell remains upset with the decision, indicating he was planning on retiring in three years.
“Nobody’s volunteering to pay for my salary for the next three years,” he said.
Meanwhile, Fegley said the school district has received multiple calls from district residents concerned about the issue but that everything has been very civil.
“I’ve had many enjoyable chats with residents,” he said. “We may not agree with the end result, but we at least go about it respectfully on both ends. The citizens of the Phoenixville Area School District have been very respectful.”
District administrators offered to speak to concerned groups to answer questions they may have regarding the eminent domain issue and the new school building construction.
Follow Frank Otto on Twitter @fottojourno.