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June 12, 2024

Delaware County drops plan for mental health facility at former Don Guanella school

The Marple Township property is slated to become the Delco Woods park. But plans to use a portion of the site for residential treatment drew staunch opposition.

Government Parks
Delco Woods Park Source/Google Earth

An aerial view shows the 213-acre property in Marple Township that will become Delco Woods park. The property was formerly the Don Guanella school. Delaware County considered using an old building for mental health services, but officials say that plan has been abandoned.

Delaware County officials have ditched a plan to put mental health services in a former Don Guanella School building on the site of the future Delco Woods park in Marple Township.

The 213-acre property along Sproul Road, formerly owned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, was acquired via eminent domain in 2021 and is the largest open space remaining in the county. At the time of the $22 million purchase — which followed years of advocacy to preserve the land — the county indicated the property's sole purpose would be to develop a wooded park with trails, bike paths and other amenities.

But in recent months, Delaware County Council had been mulling the possibility of using an old school building on the site for residential mental health treatment. Council members argued it could be a convenient location for such services, because that part of the property already had been zoned for institutional use, and it would preclude putting a facility in a more densely populated area.

The county has since decided the Don Guanella building isn't suited for the purpose of mental health treatment in its current state, officials said Wednesday.

"This week, having received more detailed reports on the building, the county has determined that the building located on the Delco Woods property is not a viable option for (long-term structured residences) due to its physical condition and the costs of renovation," county officials said in a statement. "The county continues to look at other locations in Delaware County to treat community members and address the mental health crisis in our community."

Council hearings in recent months have been packed with residents opposed to using the Delco Woods property for mental health services. Mounting opposition resulted in Marple Township commissioners holding a special hearing to rezone the entire property as open space, potentially preventing any use of the school buildings. In response, Delaware County filed an appeal of that decision and took Marple Township to court over its handling of the matter.

"The County intends to pursue the other challenges to the zoning ordinance to maintain its rights to the property as purchased," county officials said in their statement. "The county, however, is willing to work with Marple Township on amending their open space zoning to avoid further litigation and ensure zoning for the property meets the needs of the county in creating a park that serves all of Delaware County for generations to come."

A county spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment about alternative locations that may be considered for mental health services. The county official's statement said they still wish to consider other uses for three buildings located on the Don Guanella campus, which was built in 1960.

The idea of putting mental health services in a section Delco Woods drew backlash from residents who spoke at county council meetings in recent months. Some said they suspected the county would use the school buildings to house undocumented immigrants, a notion the county called unfounded.

"Rumors and misinformation can fuel immigration paranoia, spread hate, and create fear and we encourage residents to be cautious of rumors that circulate on blogs and social media," county officials said in March.

After a meeting in May, Delaware County Councilwoman Elaine Paul Schaefer said the residents in attendance were an "angry mob" directing animosity toward immigrants.

County officials said they have been faced with a shortage of residential services for people with long-term, chronic mental health conditions since Norristown State Hospital eliminated its beds. The county identified a provider for the services three years ago and has explored more than 25 possible locations since then, but still hasn't settled on a site.

The former Don Guanella buildings once were used as residential facilities for children with special needs and later for adults. After the Archdiocese of Philadelphia closed the school in 2015, the land was targeted by multiple developers who sought to use it for residential and mixed-used projects. When those plans failed to gain approval in Marple Township, the county decided to buy and preserve the woods for public use.

Master planning for Delco Woods is still underway with ongoing site inventory, survey work and community outreach. The county hasn't shared a timeline for the park to be open.