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Judge Says No to Selling Parkland in Philadelphia

A local judge’s ruling in Philadelphia has ensured (unless an appeal overturns it) that nearly 20 acres of the city’s Burholme Park will not be leased to the Fox Chase cancer center to construct several buildings. The judge determined that leasing the land would mean breaking the law and the will of Robert W. Ryerss, who bequeathed and dedicated  it to the city in 1905 to be used as parkland “forever.” A local councilman has made a deal whereby Fox Chase would pay millions to the city as part of the agreement, including $ 4.5 million to be used on “capital expenditures” in his district that did not have to be parkland at all. An editorial in the Philadelphia Daily News supported the decision and calls on the city to address the issue of selling off parkland:

According to the law, which was cited 100 years ago in a similar decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, if it’s dedicated parkland that is still used as a park, it has to stay that way.We’ll leave to others the questions of why neither the city nor the Fairmount Park Commission did not at least raise the question of the “public-trust doctrine” in this long-running issue. We want to focus on the future of Fairmount Park as its governance structure changes.Herron said the law wouldn’t prevent the city from selling or exchanging parkland that no longer was viable. To that end, it’s essential that the commission established by the Nov. 4 referendum to advise the new Department of Parks and Recreation establish clear criteria for determining viability and for deciding if and how to pursue divesting land.

Protecting city parkland should be the soul of the city’s park policy. The Fox Chase deal, while perhaps well-intentioned, undermined that soul. We’re grateful not only for one wise judge, and many active neighbors, but for the commonwealth’s foresight 100 years ago that has succeeded in protecting us from ourselves.

For more information on how cities have sold off or protected parkland, see this article by Peter Harnik. The organization Defense of Place is also a resource that is dedicated to park protection.

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