The organization that authored a Deed of Conservation Easement now under fire in Silver Spring Township said it’s willing to go to court to maintain the land’s protected status.
The Cumberland Valley School Board approved a resolution on Jan. 23 that authorizes the district to negotiate the purchase of a 116-acre lot at 31 Old Willow Mill Road bordering Carlisle Pike in Silver Spring Township around Hogestown. The property, known as the McCormick Farm, is for sale by a real estate firm at a listed price of $1.5 million.
The district plans to acquire approximately 100 acres of the land, excluding the historic house that sits on the property, through eminent domain, according to a district media statement issued on Monday. At this point, the district says it has no definite plans for the property, instead reserving it for future growth needs.
Natural Lands, which wrote the property’s conservation easement deed, is ready for a fight, according to statement an organization representative submitted to The Sentinel on Wednesday.
“Natural Lands (previously known as Natural Lands Trust) holds a conservation easement on an 108-acre portion the property located in Silver Spring Township known as the McCormick Farm. The purpose of the easement is to keep the property whole and free from development,” said Oliver Bass, vice president, communications and engagement for Natural Trust.
“We are aware that the Cumberland Valley School District has voted to exercise eminent domain so that it may acquire the property for future use. We have retained legal counsel and intend to do everything in our power to protect the integrity of the easement,” Bass’s statement concluded.
Natural Lands works throughout eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey to save open spaces, care for nature and connect people to the outdoors. Based in Media, it owns 44 nature preserves and holds more than 370 conservation easements on nearly 23,000 acres.
In response to Natural Lands’ statement, Cumberland Valley School District communications specialist Tracy Panzer said that Natural Lands “has made us aware of their opposition.” She cited a media release issued by the district on Monday as further reference.
The district’s previous statement said, “Cumberland Valley School District continues to experience unprecedented growth in enrollment. … To that end, the district made the decision to obtain a sizable portion of the 116-acre tract of land located at 31 Old Willow Mill Road. The district will acquire approximately 100 acres of the land, which does not include the historic house that sits on the property.
“The (McCormick Farm) property has been encumbered by a Deed of Grant Conservation Easement, which has been reviewed by the district solicitor. It was written into the deed by its author, the Natural Lands Trust, that once the property, or portion thereof, is taken by condemnation, the conservation easement terminates automatically by operation of the law.”
The farm has been preserved since at least 1870 by the McCormick family and is widely regarded as a regional historic link. James McCormick, who was born on the farm, was president of Dauphin Deposit Bank, the Harrisburg Bridge Co., and the Harrisburg Cemetery. A distant cousin, Cyrus McCormick, invented the reaper.
At a Cumberland Valley School Board meeting on Monday, around a dozen residents spoke out against the district’s negotiations to acquire the property during a public comment period.
Board president Michael Gossert told the crowd on Monday that the district is running out of space, tallying at a 90 percent building capacity even with two new schools under construction. “This is our bull’s-eye area right here. They keep building houses here in Silver Spring Township,” he said.
The district’s enrollment is approximately 9,142 students, an increase of more than 1,700 students since 2010. The district’s three-year average growth rate is 2.22 percent or more than 200 students per year, a trend that district officials said they expect to continue for the next three to five years.
In Silver Spring Township, the district’s three-year average growth rate is 3.61 percent with no apparent end in sight. District officials said they anticipate more than 200 new residential homes will be in the township for at least the next three years, accompanied by a strong market for existing homes.
The district has two schools under construction that are due to open in 2018-19 at Bali Hai and Lambs Gap roads in Hampden Township. Winding Creek Elementary School is scheduled to open in August 2018, followed by the opening of Mountain View Middle School in March 2019.
According to district statistics, Winding Creek Elementary is expected to open with 95 percent of its seats already filled. Mountain View Middle School is expected to open at 86 percent capacity.