Real Estate Investor Steve Sudhop’s Controversial Plan for Marple’s Greenbank Farm
The innovator wants to bring senior housing to the area.
Steve Sudhop at Greenbank Farm// Photo by Tessa Marie Images
Normally, Steve Sudhop is a good neighbor. But he’s not Mister Rogers, and it’s not such a wonderful day in the neighborhood at Paxon Hollow and Palmers Mill roads in Media.
A Marple Township commissioner in the 1990s and a decades-long Rotarian, Sudhop has served his community, even sitting on the Sewer Authority commission, spearheading improvements at the Paxon Hollow Golf Club while uncovering employee theft there. He also hands out hoagies and $20 bills to Philadelphia’s homeless over the holidays. “I’ve been active,” he says, describing himself as gregarious. “I generally say yes to what I’m asked.”
Sudhop, a 35-year Marple resident, graciously accepted the naming dedication of the main hall at the Delaware County Historical Society museum in Chester this spring. “I’m a little embarrassed about that one,” he says. “It’s a legacy for my grandkids. It can never be all about yourself. We help others.”
He’s also known for having vision. In fact, during his more active days in the local Republican Party, Sudhop was once honored as “Mr. Idea.” “It’s not because I became an expert at what doesn’t work,” he says. “I figure out what does work, then make it work. The glass is always half full, then I determine what needs to be done to fill the rest up.”
Sudhop tries not to judge others—but he’s been judged. Because of his latest vision, he’s become “Dennis the Menace” and, in his words, “The Devil Developer” among those who claim he’s playing the “victim.”
His purchase of the remnants of Greenbank Farm and its four-acre parcel on Palmers Mill Road last August reignited apprehension among residents. They’re concerned he’ll combine the property with proposed plans for his already-controversial Woodland Preserve, a 650-unit active-adult continuing care retirement community (CCRC) on a neighboring 45-acre tract, turning the historic farm into a clubhouse corner that green-space groups are calling “invasive.”
Nine surrounding lots have been developed over the years, including a modern, Asian-influenced property that’s heavily gated above the downhill path to the original farm. It remains in the Mackey family, which owned the farm for half of the 20th century. Owner Marilyn Mackey initially agreed to an interview, but ultimately withdrew on her lawyer’s advice.
Modern homes like hers have already ruined the view, Sudhop says. “I’m preserving what’s left, but they think I’m the devil. They call me a developer. Why? I’ve never developed anything except building my own home 22 years ago—and I wouldn’t recommend doing that.”
Sudhop is a real estate investor, a gracefully aging 72-year-old who’d like to “age in place.” “All I want to do is build a retirement community so I can live in one that I like,” he says.
He’s referring to the park-like setting of his planned—though far from approved—site, which promises 69 percent will remain as green space, perhaps an unprecedented figure amid such high-density housing. But the density has a purpose: affordability, without skimping on amenities. The vertically stacked single-floor hybrid apartment-cottage units for independent, assisted and skilled living would be equipped with elevators and communal recreational galleries.
The proposed land was zoned R-A (one single-family dwelling per 80,000 square feet), which could’ve been divided into 24 buildable lots. At the time of Sudhop’s May 2014 presentation to commissioners, he could build a CCRC “by right” since no CCRC district was published on Marple’s zoning map. His engineering firm asked the director of code enforcement where a CCRC could be built, and the response was “anywhere in the township,” Sudhop says. However, shortly after the presentation, the township solicitor told the firm that Sudhop should pursue a zoning amendment rather than a negotiated text amendment—a ploy, Sudhop says, to send him “on a wild-goose hunt.”
By October 2016, Marple had changed its zoning map, designating only one place where a CCRC could be built: the existing Wesley Enhanced Living CCRC (formally Martins Run), which is in the R-A zone near Woodland Preserve. Thus, future CCRCs are excluded from anywhere else in the township, regardless of the comprehensive plan’s recommendations since 1991. Sudhop’s application, then, remains contrary to the township’s current zoning, and its planning commission has unanimously voted to deny recommending his negotiated zoning amendment. Township commissioners had the topic on a January agenda, then postponed it and haven’t rescheduled.
Sudhop used the original CCRC ordinance to make three presentations. He has sued the township for changing that ordinance to intentionally thwart his CCRC, he says, never informing him or his engineer so as to avoid sparking more timely legal action. A hearing in common pleas court is pending.
Neighbors, who have joined forces under the banner of Paxon Hollow Greenspace, are loud and clear. “He wants to put a seven-story building behind our house,” says member Mary Huis, a lifelong Delaware County resident whose husband, Randy, is president of the group, which has retained a lawyer to intervene in Sudhop’s suit. “This is one area zoned to be a little more rural, but even here they have to try to cram in a retirement community.”
In 2000, a coalition of buyers—including Marple Township, Delaware County, the then-homeless Delaware County Historical Society, and the Natural Lands Trust—purchased Greenbank Farm, with its 34 pastoral acres adjacent to the trust’s 55-acre Hildacy Farm Preserve. The $2.4 million sale created one of the county’s largest open-space conservation districts—some 350 acres bordered by Crum Creek as it spills out of the Springton Reservoir dam. Marple paid $1 million and turned its 28 acres into a public park. The trust, which contributed $450,000, obtained commitments for $325,000 from Delco and $375,000 from the historical society, which used the rambling farmhouse as its headquarters for 15 years. A tenant paid $250,000 for a two-acre site.
Sudhop purchased the historical society’s piece—essentially the pupil in the old farm’s eye—for $600,000 cash last summer. His holdings there include a circa-1750 English Colonial vernacular farmhouse, with its formal terraced garden inside Old World iron gates and natural rural stone walls; a circa-1820 Federal stone mansion, the rear of which has a unique architectural tower and a metal fire escape; and a circa-1920 hyphen that connects the two houses. There’s also a circa-1830 barn and icehouse, a milk house, and three two-bedroom apartments. “But I didn’t buy this so I can say that I have it and you don’t,” he says. “I bought it to say, ‘Why don’t you come see my garden, and we’ll have tea? And bring your grandkids.’”
Historically, the parcel was part of a William Penn land grant of 300 acres in 1681 to Peter and Joshua Worrall, then the most familiar name in Marple. In 1699, 150 acres were transferred to John Worrell and, subsequently, to Joshua Worrall in 1716. In 1720, it was sold to Peter Thomson and, in 1754, was passed to Peter’s brother Moses and then to Moses’ children. It remained in that family until 1794, when it was sold to Samuel Black, who owned it until his death in 1838. It then passed to his son John.
More recently, since 1955, the Mackeys owned the remaining property. The name Mackey is still engraved on a door knocker. With conservation-minded buyers in tow, the Natural Lands Trust often approached then-aging owner James Q. Mackey, but was always turned away. Then, an adjoining property was sold to developers, one of whom was Mackey’s son. Soon after, the elder Mackey died, the farm was put up for sale, and the trust shifted into high gear.
Sudhop’s plans “to fix it up and not develop,” Fleetman says, was significant to the society’s decision to sell. “There’s a lot of guff from the neighbors in the end,” Fleetman says. “The big problem is that they don’t want it developed, and he can’t unless the township grants a huge variance.”
Sudhop adamantly maintains that his interests are altruistic, though he could cash in handsomely. “I’ve already made my money,” he says. “You can have a 7,500-square-foot home. You can have a 1,500-square-foot rec room. You can have everything you can imagine, but if you have no joy in life … The one thing that’s usually missing later in life—it’s people. After retiring, you need a venue to make friends in the natural course of things.”
Communal-style housing is a noninstitutional solution, Sudhop says, as are the opportunities to gather socially, raise tilapia, grow vegetables in a community greenhouse, help maintain a stable, take up videography, and go on group cruises. “I’d like to stay in the township,” Sudhop says. “I want daily interactions to be longer than the 30 minutes after church.”