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Coalition Urges Penn State to Withdraw from Toll Brothers Land Sale Agreement

by on May 31, 2017 3:36 PM

As the Nittany Valley Water Coalition continues its battle in court to prevent a Toll Brothers residential development in Ferguson Township, the group is also asking Penn State to withdraw from an agreement to sell the property where the developer plans to build the complex.

Penn State entered a binding agreement in 2012 to sell 44 acres of land to Toll Brothers, contingent on approved use of the land by the Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors. In 2015, the supervisors approved Toll Brothers' Planned Residential development plan for The Cottages at State College, a 264-unit complex, primarily for students, near the intersection of Whitehall Road and Blue Course Drive.

Since the project was first introduced in 2014, township residents have been vocal about concerns that construction and stormwater runoff would harm the nearby Harter-Thomas well fields, the source of drinking water for the majority of homes served by the State College Borough Water Authority (SCBWA), which provides water to the Centre Region.

The coalition, a group of 15 neighboring land owners, appealed supervisors' decision, arguing that the township's approval violated its own ordinances and the state Municipal Planning Code. Last year a Centre County judge decided in favor of the residents, ruling that the supervisors committed an error of law in approving the final PRD plan. But on May 17, a Commonwealth Court panel vacated that decision and returned the case to county court to enter an order quashing the residents' appeal.

The residents said this week they will appeal to Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and on Tuesday issued an open letter to university officials, imploring them to break the agreement to sell the land.

The letter cites the university's own strategic plan and one of its five thematic priorities, "Stewarding Our Planet's Resources," noting the university's goal to be "​a leader in creating comprehensive solutions to mitigate the dangers of climate change and address the challenges of providing safe and abundant water,clean and renewable energy sources, and plentiful and nutritious food.”​

"It is therefore concerning that Penn State has agreed to sell 44 acres of prime agricultural land to Toll Brothers, an out-of-state developer with infractions of the Clean Water Act in 370 sites in 23 states, for which the EPA fined the corporation more than $740,000," the coalition writes, citing a 2012 Clean Water Act settlement between the Environmental Protection Agency and Toll Brothers. "

"It is of further concern that that the land to be sold lies within the Zone 2 wellhead protection area of the Thomas-Harter wells that provide up to two-thirds of the daily drinking water for 75,000 Penn State students and year-round residents of the State College area."

The site of the proposed construction, the letter states, "is karst rock with existing sinkholes, an intermittent stream and a prominent swale that could take pollutants to the Slab Cabin Run and the wells." The coalition cites a 2006 dye trace study by the SCBWA that showed released dye would be in the wells in two days, as well as a commissioned 2014 report that said the development project could increase the risk of sinkhole formation in the area.

The letter also notes the coalition's argument that the proposed plan for a stormwater management facility on 5.5 acres of Rural Agriculture-zoned land on the property violates township ordinance. Thirty-eight acres of the property, where the units would be built, are zoned R4 for multi-family residential use.

Residents will continue their legal appeal, but they say they recognize it may be too late and that there is nothing to stop the developers from breaking ground on the project.

"Nothing, that is, except one of the nation’s top Land Grant schools and its noble words printed in its strategic plan," the letter says. "We therefore ask you, as your neighbors, staff, employees, alumni and friends to help stop this development. Reach out to Toll Brothers to find another site for this development. Do not allow them to build on this farmland and threaten our water. This risk is too great.

"We understand that Toll Brothers is a big and powerful corporation and could sue Penn State. But do not let that risk break your resolve. Protect us, your neighbors, and we will stand with you."

Penn State, however, seems unlikely to break the agreement. Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said the university has received the letter and is aware that some residents have expressed concerns about potential impacts on drinking water.

"Penn State is always concerned about the safety and security of our region’s drinking water – since we also live here," Powers said.

But, she added, the project has been subject to "stringent requirements to mitigate potential risks associated with water quality," by the township and SCBWA. The water authority conducted four reviews and required geo-testing, "something that has never been done before with any other development," Powers said. The Cottages also would be the first housing development in the region to have a monitoring well installed as part of the project.

"Ferguson Township also has ordinances that meet or exceed current state laws requiring control of storm water runoff and its borehole ordinance assures that drilling of wells for potable water and for geothermal use do not affect groundwater quality," she said.

The university is not involved in the development and entered into the binding agreement five years ago to sell the land to Toll Brothers subsidiary Springton Pointe LP for $13.5 million, contingent on land use approval.

"To now extract the University from the sales agreement would mean substantial penalties," Powers said. "The municipalities and other governing bodies that oversee the environmental protection of resources are evaluating the proposed use by Toll Brothers. As appropriate, the township and the courts will make the final determination."



Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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