St. Joe’s Plan Irks Area Orthodox

A contingent of Merion-area residents opposed to a plan by St. Joseph's University to turn the grounds of a former private school into collegiate-level athletic fields is worried that the changes could disrupt the Shabbat experience for Orthodox families in the area.

The protracted zoning battle over the project shows no signs of being over any time soon.

St. Joe's plans include adding, to the already existing fields, bleacher seats, press boxes and a public-address system for collegiate men's baseball, as well as women's softball and field-hockey games, on the former home of the co-ed Episcopal Academy.

Some residents expressed concern that this will increase traffic considerably, making it more difficult to walk to shul on Saturdays. They also said that the loudspeakers would raise the noise level on Shabbat.

These are the Jewish issues at hand. Other residents have stated that property values could be affected by the expected bump in weekend activity.

The property in question sits on Latches Lane in Merion Station, next to the Barnes Foundation Museum. The fields extend south several blocks to City Avenue. The university first received township approval to buy the site in 2006, though the deal wasn't finalized until two years later.

The site sits a few blocks from Lower Merion Synagogue, the area's largest Orthodox shul, and also within walking distance of Young Israel of the Main Line and Aish Philadelphia.

Saturday use of the field "will really lessen the Shabbat experience for many in the immediate area," said Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia and a member of Lower Merion synagogue who testified at a December zoning-board hearing on the issue.

Harriet Goodheart, a university spokeswoman who's been at all of the hearings so far, said that the changes won't be disruptive.

"All we want to do is have our student athletes play baseball on a field where baseball has been played for 60 years," she said.

She also said that fewer games and fewer sports are planned for the site; for example, Episcopal had a football team, St. Joe's does not.

Local Orthodox lay and rabbinic leadership have followed the dispute closely.

Lauren Wylonis, co-chair of the Merion Community Coalition — created in 2008 after the university unveiled the full scope of its site plan — estimated that of the 400 or so families opposing the proposal that the coalition represents, about half are Orthodox Jews.

But not everyone agrees that the proposed changes would affect observant Jews more than other residents.

"This is a NIMBY — 'not in my back yard' — issue, not a Jewish issue," said Paul L. Newman, also a member of Lower Merion Synagogue, whose property abuts the site.

The battle between the coalition and the university has landed in the courts, as well as the Lower Merion Township zoning board, which ruled earlier this year that the school needed special approval to move forward. Those hearings began in July; Jan. 7 marked the sixth five-hour hearing on the topic.

At least one more is scheduled. After that, the lawyers representing both sides have 30 days to submit a brief to the board, and then the board has 30 more days to render a decision.

With a fight this contentious, there is also the possibility that the loser will appeal.

Wylonis said that "the university doesn't really care about the neighbors. They have not made one iota of effort working with the neighbors."

Goodheart countered that the school is hardly a newcomer to the area, and has a history of reaching out to the general and Jewish communities. For example, she pointed out that part of the Lower Merion eruv extends onto campus property.

"We've been very open about our plans," she said. "There has been a lot of dialogue."



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