Township Battles County Over Land Sale

Upper Providence Township officials and community members upset over Montgomery County’s sale of Parkhouse Providence Pointe and its more than 200 acres of surrounding land plan to stage a third protest opposing the deal Saturday.  But county officials say the suburban municipality’s objections are unfounded.

"How does anybody in Montgomery County know that the next time they get into a budget crunch," asked Upper Providence Township supervisor Lisa Mossie, "they aren't going to sell off open space to help?"

The county is selling the geriatric nursing facility and the nearly 288 acres it sits on for $39 million to Mid-Atlantic Health Care LLC. 

"It wasn't sold in a fire sale because we needed the money," said Frank Custer, county spokesman.

Fewer and fewer counties in Pennsylvania own and operate nursing care facilities.  The sale rids the county of a money-losing enterprise, while turning the facility over to an entity that specializes in senior care, Custer said.

Montgomery County announced the Timonium, Md.-based company as the winning bidder in October 2013 after it initially posted an admittedly vague request for information in February 2013. 

"The county would consider including part, or all, of the vacant land in any proposal," it read. 

Meeting minutes indicate $3 million of the sale price was put towards the land acquisition.

But community members say they were blindsided by the sale of the "open space," which has operated as a public park for years.

"The inclusion of the land is unnecessary and it is an egregious breach of the community’s trust," said Mossie, who added that the process lacked transparency.

County officials, on the other hand, say the land was never designated as open space despite community members using it as such without repercussions.

"It is not a public park," Custer said.

The term open space doesn’t simply refer to undeveloped land, he added. The county must designate the land to be permanently preserved, which isn’t the case for the acreage surrounding Parkhouse.

"The county maps, including the official county map, clearly denote this property as government use, institutional use," added Lee Soltysiak, MontCo’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer.

Upper Providence plans, which were approved by the county and designate the land as open space, would not override the county's denotation.

Soltysiak goes on to ask why the township didn’t express their concerns in the eight month period between when the county suggested Parkhouse’s sale and the announcement of the final bid."

"The township isn’t in the business of providing health care services, so we would never had made a bid on that,” said Mossie, before adding that the township would be willing to fork over $3 million to buy the vacant property that sits alongside the nursing home.

She also adds the information the county provided to the township "did not include a map of the property, nor what lands would or would not be included."

But, according to Custer, separate offers for portions of the property were not entertained once the county determined selling the five-building geriatric care facility in conjunction with the land was the best option.

Plus the $3 million listed as the cost of the land is not the true sale price of the approximately 220 acres, but simply how the buyer decided to break down the items for its own accounting purposes, said Montgomery County’s First Assistant Solicitor Josh Stein.  As far as the county is concerned, the entire property cost $39 million, he said.

“We bought what was offered,” said Dr. Scott Rifkin of Mid-Atlantic Health Care, which has been put squarely in the middle of the township’s fight against the county.

“We have no particular plans for the land,” Rifkin said.  “We obviously want to use it as open space. If they can figure out the liability issues, we will leave the land open to be used.”

The township has yet to see that promise in writing and would still remain skeptical of the intentions of a private owner, Mossie said.

“We are still concerned that once it is out of public hands, there is no control over what happens,” said Barbara Flynn, who created a petition against the sale that already has more than 1,400 signatures.  “They could decide they don’t want public access altogether. They could re-subdivide it and sell it to another developer.”

Rifkin insists that he wants to work with the community to find the best possible use for the land.

“We have no plans to sell the land, we  have no plans to develop the land and we are happy to sit down with the community to discuss how the land will be used,” he said.

MontCo officials say the Save Parkhouse group can continue to express their disagreement, even though they will likely get what they want.

The township successfully changed the land’s zoning, which will prevent any development from happening on the land without township approval, and the county is working to subdivide 70 acres of land from the entire parcel so it can be permanently preserved as open space, Soltysiak said.

“They are going to end up with exactly what they are proposing,” he said.

Mossie questions the efforts to portray the county's request for a subdivision as a way to protect and preserve land that is part of the Upper Schuylkill Valley Park.

"The implication is that if Upper Providence Township does not grant the subdivision, the lands of the upper Schuylkill valley Park would be included in the sale," she said. "The only threat to this land is from the county itself."

The next protest is slated for Jan. 11 and will begin with a gathering at the Dunkin’ Donuts at 1882 Markley St., Norristown at noon on before moving to a yet-to-be-determined rally site, according to the Save Parkhouse Rally Facebook page.

“We are going to continue to raise awareness,” Flynn said. “What do they need the property for?”

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