The long saga of litigation and stagnation surrounding the grand Elkins Estate since its 2009 purchase by the non-profit Land Conservancy of Elkins Park went sour appears to be coming to a close.
In Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas today lawyers for the two sides, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de-Ricci and the conservancy, headed by Wyncote resident David Dobson, announced an agreement that is to be finalized by court order. The arrangement stipulates that the conservancy will vacate the estate by Jan. 30, less than a week from today.
“Our three-year-long nightmare is over,” said Sr. Anne Lythgoe, President of the Dominican Sisters congregation, in a prepared statement. “This has been a tremendous waste of time, effort and money over unnecessary litigation and unjustified delays.”
She told Citizens’ Call that after taking back ownership in 2010, the congregation was stymied in asserting control of their own property. “It was a feeling like you’re being held hostage – like a house that you owned but weren’t allowed to live in it.” Lythgoe continued, “We sold the property in good faith to somebody we thought was capable of following through,” but the transaction broke down. Dobson was unavailable for comment.
In her statement, Lythgoe said, “We are ready to move on and anxious do what is necessary to bring back the beauty of this treasure. We are working with a number of other parties who want to see the estate flourish. A new future awaits this magnificent property and we are excited to pursue new plans for it.”
But when asked for specifics on the future of the estate, Lythgowe said she was not ready to divulge those plans, other than to assert that the sisters were fully committed to the historic preservation of the property. She offered no time frame for a public announcement. The buildings are rooted in the Gilded Age of the 19th century and include two elegant mansions designed by Horace Trumbauer, one the Italian Renaissance-style Elstowe Manor and the other the Tudor-style Chelten House.
Within months after purchase from the Dominican Sisters, who had owned and occupied the estate for about 75 years, the conservancy began missing mortgage payments in what turned into a bitter dispute. To facilitate an $8.5 million sale, the sisters had financed a $7 million mortgage, but the missing payments allowed the congregation to take back the deed, returning their ownership of the property in 2010. But that immediately triggered the conservancy’s filing for bankruptcy, which served to prolong the dispute.
With the sisters’ legal ownership restored, they still lacked actual possession of the estate and then sought an “ejectment” in Montgomery County Court. Once the conservancy agreed in October to the dismissal of its bankruptcy case in federal court, the way was paved for action on possession of the property.
With an agreement to vacate reached, Court of Common Pleas Judge Richard Haaz today requested that the congregation’s attorney Michael Cordone prepare the order for the court and the sheriff and that an attorney for the conservancy, co-sign the order. It should be issued shortly, prior to the Jan. 30 deadline.
The Land Conservancy was established by Dobson to own the property, apparently with few other assets to anchor the massive undertaking of the Elkins Estate. The property contains seven buildings erected by William Elkins, a wealthy businessman who participated in the formation of the PA Railroad Company and SEPTA. Dobson runs a major nonprofit housing company, Food for All, which was reportedly the source of the conservancy’s $1.5 million downpayment and what mortgage payments were made. According to the Elkins Estate website, Food for All has managed the estate since 2010 and is associated with low-income housing developments, a homeless shelter and provides a range of services to government agencies related to low-income housing and meals.
While Dobson failed to keep the estate afloat as a going concern, he was responsible for innovations in offering the property as an upscale site for weddings and other special events and leasing it to a production company, White Pines, that made it available as a cultural performance venue. It is possible that components of a new plan for the property that eventually emerges will include some of these same elements.
Cheltenham Township and especially its school district have major stakes in the future of the Elkins estate from the standpoint of tax revenue, potential future housing development and economic diversification on the property. According to 2011 tax records, annual tax revenue due the township is more than $50,000 while revenue to the school district is over $300,000.
However, considerable back taxes are owed starting in 2010 due to the loss of the property’s long held tax exempt status after it was purchased by the Land Conservancy, which appealed the tax ruling. The issue is now in court. According to Township Solicitor Joe Bagley, any liability for back taxes reverts to the new owners, the Dominican Sisters, however future taxes will be dependent upon the specfiic uses of the property and whether they are considered tax exempt. During the years of their tax exemption, the congregation housed and provided services for retired staff and used the property for religious retreats. On the immediate tax question, Lythgoe said, “We believe that our possession of the property will satisfy the Tax Assessment Board that we are, in fact, tax exempt, as a public charity.”