According to the old saying, good fences make for good neighbors. But in East Torresdale, a proposal for a new fence at the Glen Foerd estate is making neighbors very concerned.
And it’s not just about the fence idea.
Dozens of Glen Foerd’s neighbors attended the monthly meeting of the East Torresdale Civic Association on May 9 to voice their frustration about an apparent breakdown in communication between themselves and the administration of the 18-acre, publicly owned historic site. The neighbors in attendance included founders of the Glen Foerd Conservation Corporation and some of its former and current board members.
At issue, they said, is the recent reconfiguration of the nonprofit conservation corporation’s board of directors. When originally constituted in 1983, the board consisted of an equal complement of “near neighbors” and of ETCA representatives. After a few years, at-large positions were added, but the neighbors and ETCA, when combined, still retained a two-thirds majority.
But in more recent times, neighbors say, the board has been operating with some vacancies and has changed the bylaws to reduce the allotment of seats held by the site’s immediate neighbors. Under the new rules, immediate neighbors could occupy as little as 20 percent of the board’s seats. Glen Foerd, on its website, lists 17 members on the board. Some of those reside outside of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, the neighbors claim, although the estate is a city-owned facility. The conservation corporation leases the site from the Department of Parks and Recreation for a nominal annual fee under a multi-year management agreement.
The neighbors fear that their influence on the board is being minimized and that decisions about the estate are being made without their input. An announcement in March by Glen Foerd Executive Director Meg Sharp Walton highlighted one of those instances.
In a presentation to the ETCA, Walton discussed her organization’s plans to build a fence around the Glen Foerd property as a security measure because the site had been targeted by nighttime trespassers, vandals and scrap metal thieves. Last week, several neighbors said they were told nothing of the fence and learned about the plan only after reading a report of the March ETCA meeting in the Northeast Times. Many were dismayed by the news because they feel a fence would restrict the community’s free access to the public site.
“That’s how neighbors found out about the fence, they read it in the Northeast Times,” said Julia Apice, a lifelong resident of Torresdale who helped rescue the Glen Foerd mansion from demolition and estate from redevelopment more than three decades ago. Neighbors called a emergency meeting on April 12 with Walton, Glen Foerd board president Colleen Boyle Sharp and about 60 others on hand. The dialogue became heated at times, according to ETCA Vice President William Kennedy.
“This situation has shown that there has to be information when things are going to happen,” Kennedy said. “At the end of the meeting, the issue was no longer about the fence. It was about the great chasm between the board and the people in the audience.”
Reached by telephone last week, Walton acknowledged that communication between her organization and the community must improve. She said that the bylaws were changed at the request of city officials.
“Parks and Rec requested us to diversify the board geographically,” Walton said. “Now we realize that even though we have some neighbors on the board, we need to change how we’re communicating (with the community) to make it more formal.”
City Councilman Bobby Henon, who appoints one representative for the board, proposed that Glen Foerd and the community create a working group to deal with their immediate differences. The immediate neighbors and ETCA would be represented. Walton said Glen Foerd is trying to develop a permanent body that would review and perhaps make recommendations to the board on matters involving physical improvements to the estate. She’s looking to include neighbors and the ETCA on that.
At last week’s ETCA meeting, a couple of neighbors questioned why new committees are necessary. They insist that they are the rightful stewards of the site by virtue of the will of its last private owner.
Florence Tonner, who passed away in 1973, bequeathed the property to the Lutheran Church. But she also stated in her will that if the church became unable or unwilling to maintain the estate, then possession should be transferred to the community for public benefit.
Walton said she wants to serve that mission.
“The way it stands now, I think it’s about finding a way to positively engage the community. It’s important not to lose that thread,” Walton said. ••