In briefs filed Monday in Cumberland County’s Court of Common Pleas, Cumberland Valley School District said the law allows it to move forward with a controversial effort to take the preserved McCormick Farm, and legal challenges should be dismissed.
Opponents remain unconvinced.
Natural Lands is the nonprofit trust that holds the conservation easement for the 108-acre McCormick Farm, located on Old Willow Mill Road off Carlisle Pike.
In January, Cumberland Valley approved a resolution to negotiate the purchase of the lot. The district plans to obtain the land through eminent domain. The owner wants to sell and has listed the property at $1.5 million, but Natural Lands does not and filed preliminary objections in court.
In CV’s response on Monday, the solicitor said it is one of the fastest-growing districts in the commonwealth and called the need for additional classroom space “imminent.”
The legal document goes on to say that CV considered other land for expansion before deciding McCormick Farm was “ideal” for building a new middle school. The brief does not specifically say which land the district considered.
District sources say the school board looked at virtually all pieces of undeveloped, 35-plus acre land within a three-mile radius of the high school. Several of those sites are zoned for commercial or high-density residential use, which is much more expensive. Those sources say most of the available land was being used for agricultural purposes.
Opponents have questioned whether buying McCormick Farm will truly save tax dollars, citing the costs of legal proceedings and the need to buy out the land’s conservation easement.
There have also been calls to protect the property, which Thomas McCormick settled in 1745, on historic grounds. In its court filing, CV attached a letter claiming the McCormick Family “revolutionized the agricultural industry,” along with a different letter from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission saying the land does not meet the criteria for the National Register of Historic Places. CV uses that letter to make the case the McCormick Farm “lacks historical significance.”
In its preliminary objections, Natural Lands argued that Cumberland Valley does not need all 108 acres of McCormick Farm, pointing to other schools that are on roughly 30-acre parcels and case law preventing entities from taking more land than “reasonably required.”
The school district responded by saying stormwater requirements and setback rules make it impossible to know for sure how much land it will need for a new school. Superintendent Dr. Frederick Withum has said he would like any unused land to be agricultural, public space.
Cumberland County Commissioners, preservation advocates, and others opposed to CV’s efforts to use eminent domain to take McCormick Farm say they’re less concerned about what the school district will do with the land than they are with the precedent it will set, especially if cost is cited as a reason for going after preserved farmland.
Cumberland Valley has argued its actions will not set a problematic precedent because McCormick Farm was not preserved through a county or township program; such a program would make the land nearly impossible to condemn without consent from all the parties involved.
CV’s legal documents include the property’s Deed of Grant of Conservation Easement, emphasizing the clause that states, in part:
“If the property or any part thereof shall be taken by condemnation this conservation easement shall terminate automatically as to the property so taken, to the end that the Grantor, His/Her heirs and assigns, may be fully compensated as though this conservation easement had never been granted. The condemnation award made in such taking shall first be applied in satisfaction of all indebtedness secured by any first mortgage lien, and the balance, if any, shall then be shared by the Grantor and Grantee.”
Natural Lands sent ABC27 a statement saying:
“We have received the School District’s filing and are reviewing it. However, Natural Lands asserts that it absolutely has the right to challenge the legitimacy of the taking and stands by the arguments made in our Preliminary Objections.”
“The School District has often stated that the conservation easement on McCormick Farm includes a clause that addresses the potential of a taking by eminent domain. The clause in question – which is common in conservation easements – is included not to suggest that taking an eased property is acceptable. Rather it is there, as the rest of that clause states, to make it clear that the conservation easement has a value that must be compensated should a taking occur.”