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Encampment Reaches One Month at Proposed Toll Brothers Development Site

by and on July 07, 2017 5:00 AM

It has been a month since protesters began camping on a section of the proposed site of a luxury cottage development along Whitehall Road at Blue Course Drive in Ferguson Township.

About a dozen tents are pitched there, with a small makeshift garden and an array of signs calling for Penn State and Toll Brothers to call off the deal.

The occupants haul in their own water and walk to nearby public bathrooms at High Point Park. There has not been a single night where someone has not slept at the protest site, said Kelli Hoover, of the Nittany Valley Water Coalition.

But in the coming years, that same slice of ground could become home to luxury accommodations aimed at attracting Penn State students, a development that protesters said could contaminate Slab Cabin Run and the Harter-Thomas well fields, which provide drinking water for multiple municipalities.

Toll Brothers is a Fortune 500 company that has designed and sold more than 100,000 luxury homes, making it the largest such company in the U.S. The company wants to construct a 268-unit cottage planned residential development on ground currently owned by Penn State.

Penn State entered a binding agreement in 2012 to sell the 44 acres of land to Toll Brothers for $13.5 million, contingent on approved use of the land. 

Hoover said the wish of the NVWC is that Penn State and Toll Brothers find a site elsewhere, preferably closer to campus to keep the water from being contaminated and reduce congestion along Whitehall Road. Toll Brothers said they have been eyeing the site for about five years.

Part of the site is zoned R4 multi-family, and includes 5.5 acres of land zoned rural agriculture. It would be serviced by an extension of Blue Course Drive, which currently ends along Whitehall Road.

Included among the units would be amenities such as a pool, clubhouse, fitness center, media rooms, tanning facilities, indoor and outdoor basketball courts, volleyball, outdoor barbecue space, fire pits and internal sidewalk connections.

In consideration of stormwater, the site comes below the impervious surface requirements of 50 percent from Ferguson Township. The plan calls for 46.9 percent.

But Hoover said the risk will require a large amount of mitigation, and a water retention basin could threaten the gully that runs to the south of the proposed site. She said the neighboring property owners expressed to them they also oppose the development and local support for their lawsuit is strong.

Last year, Toll Brothers told local media it has been accommodating to the Environmental Protection Agency’s stormwater guidelines and that they have worked to exceed the local stormwater regulations. A spokesman said the development would be low-impact. He said Toll Brothers wanted to be a good neighbor and would tweak the plans if the outcome of litigation required them to do so.

In November 2015, 15 families and farmers filed suit against Ferguson Township in Centre County Court, claiming the township was in error when officials approved the plan. That approval was overturned, and Toll Brothers filed an appeal. Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court then ruled against the NVWC, saying it did not file its suit at the proper time. It needed to file within 30 days of tentative approval. Instead, it filed within 30 days of final approval.

But, NVWC said that only applies if all ordinances and zoning has been followed correctly. It contends that is not the case.

The protesters are now taking their case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. June 30 was the final day for responses from Ferguson Township and Toll Brothers. Hoover said they do not know when they will find out if the Supreme Court will hear the case. She said the group's lawyer, Jordan Yeager, told them it could be weeks or months. They hope the Supreme Court pays more attention to the 5.5 rural agricultural acres, for which she said Toll Brothers did not request any kind of variance.

So far, Hoover said the community has been extremely supportive.

“There hasn’t been a single day that a lot of people haven’t stopped by,” she said.

They have given out 400 yard signs and raised $6,000 from community donations for their legal fund.

There are strict rules at the campsite. No drugs or alcohol are allowed. Signs must be at least 35 feet from the center of the road. They do not infringe on the next-door Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

She said police have stopped a couple of times, once to tell them not to get too close to the road, but all the interactions have been positive.

“We’re trying to make sure we’re not doing anything that would cause any problems,” she said.

Only a couple of people occupy the site during the day while most are at work. Around 5 p.m., the activity level picks up. June 30 was the one-month anniversary of the occupation and the protesters had a potluck dinner and live music to celebrate.

Further south on the property, the land slopes into a gully and is mostly tall weeds punctuated with a copse of trees here and there. In among some of those sprawling trees are strange rock clusters, said David Stone, one of the campsite organizers.

Under the hot sun June 30, Stone showed old pipes peeking out from the clusters of rocks that he believes may have been put there by farmers in generations past. The thinking at the camp is that at one time someone was drawing water from it when water may have been closer to the surface. The sprawling oak trees may have provided an oasis for cows from the hot sun. There are two of these sites where the NVWC wants to perform dye trace tests, Stone said.

Hoover said nearby property owners have reported an increasing amount of sinkholes as development in the area increases.

Hoover and Stone said they are not leaving the site until Penn State and Toll Brothers find another spot to build. Hoover said both entities could still make money and the water could remain protected.

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

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