Lower Merion Township contains an extensive and diverse collection of open spaces. Some of these spaces are municipally owned, some are privately held. Some open spaces are recreationally oriented (active) while others are focused on protecting natural features (passive). But the most important distinction between open spaces lies in their level of protection from future development. Municipally owned open spaces and many deed-restricted lands are permanently protected from development, however many of the most important open spaces within the Township are only temporarily protected and could potentially be lost to future development.
Regardless of ownership, use, size or level of protection, every open space makes a unique contribution to the Township’s open space network and also has a unique set of planning and/or preservation issues. This section identifies open spaces within the Township and inventories them primarily according to whether they are permanently or temporarily protected; it further inventories them according to other relevant characteristics such as if they have public access, historic resources, significant natural features or active recreation facilities. This secondary level of analysis allows the identification of common issues and potential connections between resources.
Classifying the Township’s diverse open space is not an exact science because open spaces are inherently multifunctional and are difficult to absolutely categorize. This inventory takes a comprehensive look at open spaces throughout the Township in addition to parks, schools and conservancy lands and also includes smaller institutional, municipal and commercial properties not normally considered as open spaces, but nevertheless contribute to the greater green character of the Township. These additional open spaces generally include spaces that are visible from the public right-of-way, such as shopping center parking lots, small churches or traffic islands. Even though these nontraditional open spaces may not have public access or be practical for preservation they have potential to contribute to the open space character of the Township. Institutional properties and Township lands are included in this section. Open spaces on commercial properties or associated with transportation corridors (roads and rails) are addressed in the Green Infrastructure section.
Many open spaces, such as parks and conservation lands are publicly accessible, however, many of Township’s largest open spaces are privately held estates or institutional lands, like churches, colleges and golf courses that have restricted public access. Even though many private open spaces may not be publicly accessible, they contribute to the public open space realm. This is particularly relevant in Lower Merion where private institutions comprise over 12% of the entire Township.
Private open spaces make important contributions to the Township’s overall open space system by protecting natural features, conserving historic resources and providing wildlife habitat. The large, open setbacks, architectural details and mature trees that characterize institutional properties also reinforce the low-density, green character of the Township.
Much of the Township’s open space inventory is municipally owned or deed restricted and therefore permanently protected from development. Permanently protected lands form the core of the Township ’s open space network.
The Henry Foundation is an example of an important open space that is privately owned.
Lower Merion was one of the first communities in the region to formally recognize the role open space and natural resource preservation plays in maintaining a high quality of life. Since the 1920’s, the Township government and residents have undertaken a number of preservation initiatives leading to a variety of permanent preservation arrangements, including outright municipal ownership, deed restrictions, conservation easements, façade easements and homeowner agreements. The Township is fortunate to have been able to acquire several of its most important parks over the years either through outright donation or at favorable terms.
The Township’s current inventory of permanently protected resources includes the park system, other Township owned land, such as the Township Administration Building and the Koegel Public Works Complex, and privately held lands with permanent conservation agreements. Deed restricted lands have been protected either by formalized private arrangements between landowners as with the 1937 Mill Creek Conservation Agreement or as the result of resource dedications required under either the Historic Resource Overlay District or Open Space Preservation District Ordinances.
MUNICIPAL PARK LANDS
Parkland is one of the most important types of permanently protected open space because it is publicly accessible and can be used for a variety of active or passive activities. The Township’s first public park, the Ardmore Avenue Playground, was acquired in 1913. Since that time, the Township has developed a large and diverse park system that is currently comprised of 42 different parks that total over 650 acres of land. The Township’s last addition to the park system was in 1993 with the purchase of the 103-acre Rolling Hill Park and in 1995 with the addition of the 0.5-acre Wynnewood Station Park. Rolling Hill Park was purchased with funds provided under the first Montgomery County Open Space program and the Township’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP).
Over 70% (465 acres) of the Township’s parkland is dedicated to open space and resource conservation. The remaining 30% (188 acres) is available for active recreation. The following section summarizes the most significant municipal parklands using maps and tables to identify the townships parkland and classifying it according to its primary use for resource protection or active recreation. A full analysis of the Township’s park and recreation resources is provided within the 1996 Parks and Recreation Plan.
TOWNSHIP PARK INVENTORY
OTHER MUNICIPAL LANDS
The Township also owns 74 acres of land that it uses for parking, storage, libraries or community activities. Many of these lands currently contain important open space resources, such as large trees, historic structures or architectural features. Additionally, many of these properties are located in highly visible locations, such as prominent intersections and therefore contribute to character of the Township. All of these properties have significant open space potential for conversion to parkland, construction of recreational trails or enhanced public landscaping.
PUBLIC SCHOOL LANDS
There are a total of ten public schools in Lower Merion Township comprised of two high schools, two middle schools and six elementary schools. Public school lands are generally considered as permanently protected lands, however there are examples where obsolete schools have been transformed into institutional uses, such as with the current Torah Academy on Argyle Road in Penn Wynne. Public schools often contain valuable passive and active open space, including publicly accessible recreation facilities. School buildings are often set back from public roads and have large green spaces and trees that contribute to neighborhood green character.
The School District and Township have an arrangement that makes school grounds and recreation fields available for public use after school hours. School teams, neighborhood leagues and pick-up teams heavily use school play fields. There is an increasing demand for expanded fields, particularly for soccer. The Township is actively looking for additional play fields to supplement its inventory of existing fields. Grass fields are limited in the number of times they can be used during a week without becoming physically compromised. Because artificial play fields require less rest between activities, the Township is exploring converting some grass fields to artificial surfaces to increase availability.
As part of its capital expansion, the School Board is planning on reconstructing and physically expanding both existing high schools. This expansion may potentially result in the loss of play fields . The School Board has expressed the desire to preserve existing fields to all practical extent in the redevelopment of the high school sites.
Public Schools are identified on the existing permanently protected lands map.
OTHER PROTECTED LANDS
The Township is fortunate to have three additional types of permanently protected open space that significantly contribute to the inventory. These other protected lands are comprised of lands with conservation easements/deed restrictions developed under the Open Space Preservation District Ordinance or through private Homeowner Agreements (HOA). The Township also has several properties that are held and maintained by non-profit land conservancies like the Natural Lands Trust.
CONSERVATION AGREEMENT, DEED
Saunders Woods is one of three Natural Lands Trust conservation propertiers in Lower Merion Township.
Wynnewood Valley Park offers both active and passive opportunities.
The 21-acre Idlewild Farm is a reminder of the area’s rural past. The Bridlewild Trail connects Idlewild to the nearby Saunders Woods, also a Natural Lands Trust Preserve, and to the rest of the Bridlewild network.
Idlewild Farm was originally part of the 400-acre Quaker settlement commonly referred to as the Welsh Tract. The farm and nearby “Little Farm” of Saunders Woods were donated to NLT in 1990. Idlewild Farm is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an intact country gentleman’s farm.
Lawrence Saunders originally purchased the 25-acre Saunders Woods Preserve in 1922 with the purpose of maintaining it as open space for the enjoyment of the residents of Gladwyne. Saunders Woods features open meadows and a steep, forested stream valley. The Bridlewild Trail passes through the preserve.
PERMANENTLY PROTECTED INVENTORY
TEMPORARILY PROTECTED INVENTORY
The green open character that the Township currently enjoys is not guaranteed forever. Many of the largest and most important open spaces in the Township are privately held and potentially could be developed or transformed from their current state. Even though they are green today, these properties are only temporarily protected open spaces and could be developed tomorrow. Developing strategies to ensure the protection of these important resources is one of the greatest land use challenge facing the Township.
Temporarily protected lands fall into several different categories. There are numerous large properties over 5 acres in size as well as many different types of institutional uses. Many institutional uses are over 5 acres, but many others, which contain important green spaces, are smaller in size.
The following section describes the various types of temporarily protected open spaces throughout the Township.
RESIDENTIAL PROPERTIES OVER 5 ACRES
All residentially zoned properties 5 acres and greater in size are subject to the Open Space Preservation District Ordinance. This designation includes the majority of large institutions, private recreation lands as well as large residential ‘estates’.
All properties governed by the OSPDO can be considered to be permanently protected to some degree. If they were developed, at least half of the tract would be preserved as open space. Even with this protection the resulting change to the landscape would be significant. For the purposes of this Plan, all residentially zoned properties over 5 acres in size are considered as temporarily protected.
OTHER PROPERTIES OVER 5 ACRES
High property values and scarcity of available land within the Township is increasing the potential for many commercial properties over 5 acres to be converted to residential use. Currently commercial properties over 5 aces are exempt from the OSPDO. The Township staff should evaluate placing all properties over 5 acres within the Open Space Preservation Ordinance to ensure that residential uses retain important open space.
Nearly 15% of land within the Township is devoted to institutional uses. In all there are nearly 100 separate institutional uses located within Lower Merion. The Township has a diverse collection of institutions including churches, cemeteries and museums. Large institutions, many of which have significant open space, contribute to the unique landscape of the Township.
Many institutions, such as Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary, are much the same as they were when they were built. Numerous institutions have either expanded or been subdivided over time including Waverly Heights and Devereux National. Many new institutions have replaced former occupants, such as the Baldwin School, site of the former Bryn Mawr Hotel, others now occupy former residential properties. Congregation Beth Hamerdosh in Penn Wynne is an example of a new institution reoccupying a former residential property.
It is the nature of institutions to grow and change over time. However, because many institutions are ingrained within the fabric of established residential neighborhoods, new growth is often negatively perceived. In the past several years Lower Merion has confronted the expansion of two of its largest institutions, Lankenau and Bryn Mawr Hospitals as well as numerous smaller institutions scattered throughout the Township.
Each of these situations has had a very direct impact upon the neighborhoods in which they are located. Institutional expansions usually result in an increase in intensity of use of a site and require additional parking, stormwater management and new construction. Often this expansion is at the expense of open space.
Currently, institutions are permitted as a special exception within all residential zoning districts. The Bryn Mawr Hospital situation was so significant that a new zoning district, the Bryn Mawr Medical District (BMMD), was created to address the specific needs of the hospital and surrounding community. Because of the number, importance of institutional uses to the Township, the unique role they pay in the open space character of neighborhoods in which they are located and the sensitivity associated with their expansion, the Township should investigate the feasibility of establishing a distinct institutional overlay.
The following sections detail the various institutional uses throughout the Township and identify significant open space issues associated with important properties.
COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES
There are six institutions of higher education entirely or partially located within Lower Merion including Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, Saint Josephs University, Villanova University, Rosemont College and Harcum Junior College. All of these contain historic resources and significant open spaces.
The Bryn Mawr College campus was designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux and is included in the Bryn Mawr College National Historic Register District. The Bryn Mawr College campus is open to the public and is used by cyclists and pedestrians.
Lower Merion has a total of thirteen different private schools. There are actually more private schools in Lower Merion than public schools. Almost every private school within the Township contains a significant historic resource. The Baldwin School for Girls in Bryn Mawr includes the former Bryn Mawr Hotel deigned by Frank Furness, which is a Class 1 resource under the Township Historic Preservation Ordinance.
Private schools are similar to the Township’s colleges and universities in that open space is integral to their campus design. Because of their age, many of the Township’s private schools contain interesting architectural features, like stonewalls or fences, that complement the mature landscaping. Preserving these mature landscapes which often includes formal hedges and large stands of flowering shrubs is a challenge and should be encouraged wherever possible.
Lower Merion is fortunate to have two of the region’s finest hospitals within its borders. Both Lankenau and Bryn Mawr Hospitals are undergoing significant expansion/transformation to maintain their first class status and respond to changes in the health care industry. These changes have important open space ramifications.
Lankenau Hospital is located on a 56-acre campus off Lancaster Avenue in the Penn Wynne section of the Township. The hospital complex is located in the middle of the campus and set back far from the road and surrounding neighborhood. The 41-acre northwest corner of the campus is referred to as the ‘back 40’ and is adjacent to Penn Wynne Park. Until recently this area was open to the neighborhood, but has since been fenced off largely as a result of overuse by dog owners.
The ‘back 40’ has tremendous potential to be developed for additional active recreation use. There are several issues which need to be resolved prior to this occurring, most importantly the hospital’s land development plans. Because of its large size and proximity to Penn Wynne Park every effort should be made to further develop this section for active recreation. The Township should work with the hospital and neighbors during the land development process to ensure a satisfactory outcome.
Bryn Mawr Hospital has a far more urban setting than Lankenau Hospital and does not have the benefit of large setbacks to separate it from surrounding residences. In 2005, a separate zoning district was established to address the hospital’s need for additional medical office space. The compact nature of Bryn Mawr created a difficult physical planning situation for the hospital, Township and neighbors. Usually institutional uses are separated from residential uses with large setbacks that were physically impossible in this situation. The design compromise is based upon the principles of traditional urban design that brings commercial buildings closer to the street and integrates them by creating a high quality streetscape. In this case the streetscape will become a public realm and the eventual design will be crucial to its success.
The Township should stay committed to requiring the highest quality streetscape design during the land development process to ensure that the subsequent development is successfully integrated with the existing neighborhood as well as future redevelopment of Bryn Mawr.
Cemeteries, particularly older cemeteries, can make important contributions to the Township’s open space inventory. Cemeteries often have large open areas, big trees and architectural features like stonewall and decorative fences that contribute to the green character of the Township. There are twelve cemeteries located within the Township several of which contain historic resources. The cemeteries associated with Lower Merion Baptist Church, Merion Friends Meeting House, Merion Hall and West Laurel Hill are all Class 1 Township historic resources.
Several cemeteries have policies that allow different levels of public access. West Laurel Hill Cemetery actively encourages visitors to stroll, bike or walk their dogs through their landmarks and arboretum. This is consistent with 100 years ago when cemeteries also served as parks on the outskirts of cities and families would often pack a lunch and make a day of a visit. West Laurel Hill Cemetery contains twelve miles of trails.
Combined, West Laurel Hill and Westminster Cemetery equal 250 acres of open space and serve as one of the largest green nodes in the Township. The vacant SEPTA corridor separates the two institutions. There is a tremendous potential to link these two parcels of green space with the Township’s proposed trail network via a rail trail along the SEPTA corridor. This would create tens of miles of new multi-use trails and connect many important institutional uses with neighborhoods across the Township. Additionally it would increase access to significant historic resources for all residents.
Currently there are forty-four (44) different religious institutions within the Township. As with other institutional uses within the Township, many religious institutions contain significant open spaces, including cemeteries, and historic resources.
Religious institutions differ from other types of institutions in that many churches and synagogues are located at intersections. Corner properties are unique in that they are more visually prominent and significantly contribute to the public landscape. Corner properties are usually larger in size and include increased setbacks. These setbacks contain important open space, which contribute to the green character of the Township. Preserving and enhancing landscaping associated with religious institutions is crucial to maintaining the high quality public landscape of the Township.
PRIVATE RECREATIONAL LANDS
Lower Merion contains two private recreational facilities that make important contributions to the overall open space character of the Township. The 290-acre Philadelphia Country Club in Gladwyne is the largest open space in the Township. The Country Club is located on one of the highest elevations in the eastern part of Montgomery County and contains a variety of private recreational facilities, including one of the premier golf courses in the region. The 15-acre Merion Cricket Club in Haverford dates back to 1892, and its grounds include a large brick clubhouse designed by Frank Furness and Company, which is Class 1 Township historic resource as well as a National Historic Landmark.
OTHER INSTITUTIONAL USES
Many of the Township’s most important institutions are unique and not as easy to categorize as private schools or recreational lands. Other institutions within the Township include the 13-acre Barnes Foundation in Merion, the 28-acre Riverbend Education Center and 53-acre Waverly Heights Continuing Care Facility in Gladwyne. Each of these institutions contains important open space and historic resources. The Barnes Foundation includes an Arboretum containing over 3,000 different species or varieties of woody plants. Each of these institutional uses is integral to the history and character of the Township. Every effort should be made to permanently protect these valuable resources.
The 43-acre Henry Foundation for Botanical Research and 66-acre Palace Mission/Woodmont Estate in Gladwyne are among the most significant institutions in regards to open space in the Township. While the Henry Foundation contains a private arboretum its real significance is that it is located at one of the most environmentally sensitive areas of the Township and also serves as the nexus of the Bridlewild Trails network. The Henry Foundation is adjacent to several important open spaces in Gladwyne and provides linkages to Henry Park, Saunders Woods and Kenealy Park. Preservation of the Henry Foundation as open space and for Bridlewild access is crucial to maintaining the character of Gladwyne and of the Township.
The Palace Mission/Woodmont Estate serves as the seat of the International Peace Mission, founded by Father Divine. The estate, built by steel magnate, Alan Wood, Jr., is a National Historic Landmark and rests on one of the highest elevations in Montgomery County offering spectacular views of the Schuylkill River, Conshohocken and beyond. This site is one of the largest tracts of open space in the Township and also contains many important natural features.
ACT 515, ACT 319
The Pennsylvania Open Space Covenant Act of 1966, commonly referred to as Act 515, enables landowners to enter into a covenant with Counties for the purpose of preserving farm, forest, water supply or open space lands in exchange for reduced real estate taxes. Covenanted lands must meet minimum acreage requirements under each of the four categories and the land must be determined to be eligible for the program by the Montgomery County Planning Commission. The open space covenant between the County and the landowner runs for a ten-year period. Once the initial ten-year period expires, the covenant automatically and continually renews itself every year thereafter. The amount of the reduced taxes is determined based upon a reduction in the fair market value of the land that is subject to the open space covenant area.
Currently in Lower Merion Township, three properties are protected under Act 515. The Philadelphia Country Club has had 290 acres covenanted since 1978 and two private residential properties have had a total of 104 acres covenanted since 1996.
The Pennsylvania Farmland and Forest Land Assessment Act of 1974, commonly referred to as the Clean and Green Program, is a State program designed to preserve agricultural and forest land. Also known as Act 319, the purpose of this program is to provide a real estate tax benefit to owners of agricultural or forest land by taxing that land on the basis of its “use value” rather that its market value. The Act provides preferential assessment to any individuals who agree to maintain their land solely devoted to agricultural use, agricultural reserve, or forest reserve use. To be eligible for this program, land must consist of at least 10 acres of farm, forest or open land. Landowners who have less than 10 acres may also qualify if they can prove that they earn at least $2,000 annual gross income from farming their land. Currently in Lower Merion Township, four properties are protected under Act 319.
Under the Open Space Preservation District, 14-acre Red Rose
The Township contains a vast and diverse inventory of open spaces that help to reinforce the green, country character of the Township. However, a large percentage of the Township’s open space inventory is privately held and only temporarily protected. While many of these important open spaces will most likely continue their present use, some important open spaces may potentially be lost to development over time.
The Township should continue to work with property owners to ensure that as many open spaces become permanently protected as possible and to refine its codes to ensure that if large properties are developed that important open space components are preserved.
While the potential development of institutions is a long-range issue, a more immediate issue involves the gradual expansion of institutional uses at the expense of important open space. There are no easy answers to this situation; the Township and residents must continue to balance the need for institutions to evolve in the context of preserving neighborhood character. If institutions cannot grow at all, they may be forced to dissolve or relocate and potentially be redeveloped as a different use. But what is the absolute limit that aninstitution can grow before it becomes a liability to the surrounding neighborhood? This issue is currently addressed on a case-by-case basis, but may be more effectively addressed on a comprehensive basis.
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