Chestnut Hill College's St. Joseph Hall

by Jennifer Katz

While a vast amount of attention in recent weeks has fallen on a small group of “near neighbors” whose negotiations with Chestnut Hill College have soured over rezoning the college’s campuses to an Institutional Development District, the question punctuating the conversation is “can the college still be good neighbors.”

After more than six years of planning and 18 months of negotiations with community groups, the college is making its final offer. In return for procuring conservation easements on 50 to 60 percent of the SugarLoaf campus, the community groups must agree not to sue the college.

“If we cannot build on SugarLoaf, we cannot give the easements,” said Sister Carol Jean Vale, president of the college, during a June 1 meeting organized for the community to learn about and ask questions about the master plan and IDD process.

Vale was responding to Arabella Pope, a near neighbor, who commented that she felt the college was threatening the neighborhood. Whether or not it was a threat, it was a clear statement of will to the more than 200 audience members, most of whom appeared to support the college.

Shortly after the college announced its intention to obtain an IDD, it entered into an agreement to discuss the details of its expansion with representatives from several community groups. A nine-member negotiating group was formed under the auspices of the Chestnut Hill Community Association.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Vale made it clear that the college would only pursue additional conservation easements (10.1 acres is currently eased with funding from Growing Greener, a state funded conservation program) on the SugarLoaf campus if all nine members of the negotiating group signed a Community Development Agreement.

The CDA restricts the college’s development, prescribes the treatment of the SugarLoaf site and requires additional measures related to building and utilizing the site. It also states unequivocally that none of the parties associated with the CDA can pursue litigation against the college. (It is unclear if this just applies to the development of the sites).

“SugarLoaf has no meaning to us if we are embroiled in a legal battle,” Vale said.

The college has already agreed to substantial changes to its original expansion plan in response to neighbor’s concerns. Further, Vale reiterated her commitment to meet with the community to finalize an agreement.

“The college is committed to giving 50-60 percent of the property (regarding the conservation easements) as a gift from the college to the community,” Vale said. “It is when and how, not whether we are going to do it. Until the easements are in place, the college will treat the property as eased and we are prepared to sign a legal document to that effect.

“Whether or not we get the IDD, we are committed to working these issues out.”

For neighbors such as Brad Bank, of Chestnut Hill Avenue, reassurances are simply not enough to assuage the growing concern over allowing any parcel in Chestnut Hill to be zoned as an IDD.

“My issue is with the permanence,” he said. “The IDD is a dangerous tool and it’s troubling that the college is able to obtain it without the support of near neighbors or the Friends of the Wissahickon.”

A hearing for the ordinance to establish the IDD was scheduled for City Council’s Rules Committee on Tuesday, June 7.