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Facing Appeals, Ferguson Township Supervisors Explain Pine Hall Development Plan Approval

by on October 09, 2019 5:00 AM

Since Ferguson Township's Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the Pine Hall Traditional Town Development master plan in August, two separate land use appeals have been filed in Centre County Court.

On Tuesday, supervisors issued a statement seeking to explain the history of the planning for the 150-acre commercial and residential development along Blue Course Drive and Old Gatesburg Road, efforts by the township to ensure it would benefit the community and why the plan was approved.

"The development has a large thumb-print, which is why the Board of Supervisors, Planning Commission, and staff worked with the developer for over three years throughout the course of many public meetings to ensure the development would enrich, not detract from, the Township’s character," the statement said.

Board Chair Steve Miller said at Monday night's supervisors meeting that supervisors and staff had not previously commented on the litigation because they needed to first consult with the township solicitor. (The statement can be read in its entirety at the end of this story.)

As part of the plan, developer Residential Housing Development LLC intends to cut down more than 55 acres of the privately-owned, 65-acre Pine Hall Forest, replacing 40 percent of the removed trees with new plantings. The TTD ordinance requires that 40 percent of trees be retained or replaced. In meetings leading up to the approval, some community members expressed concern about the environmental impact of the tree removal and urged the board and developers to work together to maintain more of the forest, but supervisors said at the time they could not require that more of the trees be retained.

"The Board shares the community’s concerns about a changing climate and has a proven track record of implementing public policies that protect our natural resources," the statement said. "There is room in the public discourse for these challenging conversations. In having those conversations, though, we must be mindful of the legal framework in which we are operating and tackle the challenging obstacles that allow us to advance as a community."

Nittany Valley Environmental Coalition filed an appeal in September arguing that in approving the plan supervisors incorrectly applied or misinterpreted township ordinances. Their attorneys wrote that the TTD ordinance has woodland preservation standards that require existing forested areas to be maintained unless the developer can demonstrate that is not possible.

They allege that the township did not receive verification of a tree count cited by the developer. Without knowing the correct count, the notice states, the township can't ensure the developer will properly meet requirements. NVEC also claims the developer did not submit other required documentation and that approval of the plan violates the Environmental Rights Amendment of the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Ferguson Township Home Rule Charter Community Bill of Right.

In their statement on Tuesday, supervisors again said that Pennsylvania municipalities are not permitted to regulate tree harvesting on private property. The TTD, they said, allowed them to require retention or replacement of a percentage of trees over a certain size.

"It is the existence of a land development plan that affords protection to part of the wooded area," the statement said. "The Township worked with the developer and residents who attended public meetings to preserve and enhance many of the natural characteristics of the site wherever possible.

"A Master Plan that conforms to zoning requirements has a right to approval by the Board of Supervisors. For this plan, all requirements of applicable ordinances were met. Some of the final details, including exact locations of trees to be maintained or replaced, will emerge in the reviews of the specific implementation plans that are submitted before the phases are built."

Circleville Road Partners, developer of the neighboring Turnberry development which was approved in 2011 under the TTD ordinance as written at the time, has filed multiple appeals over changes to the TTD ordinance and the plan approval. CRP says it met "numerous conditions of approval and modifications" in gaining approval for its development. Turnberry is about 50 percent complete and CRP intends to develop the remainder under its approved plan, according to a notice of appeal filed in September. 

But, CRP contends, Residential Housing, in developing its new plan over the past three years, "inexplicably convinced the Township to tailor fit its TTD legislation to fulfill all of Developer's wants in connection with its concept plan," through amendments to the ordinance.

The amendments "have the overall effect of comprehensively changing numerous requirements of the Zoning Ordinance in the TTD Zoning District for the benefit of a single tract of land being developed by a single developer to the detriment of CRP, Turnberry and the Township as a whole," according to the filing

Centre County Court and Commonwealth Court previously rejected arguments that the text amendments changed the nature of the TTD as a mixed use district or that they created a new land-use category. 

CRP, which is based in Allegheny County, says it requested pursuant to the state's Sunshine Act to be notified directly by the township about meetings related to the Pine Hall development, but did not receive notification. Actions taken at those meetings could be nullified by the court if the township is found to have violated the Sunshine Act, according to CRP.

The Pine Hall plan, which includes 1,029 residential units, also allegedly violates the township ordinance requirements that a minimum of 80 percent of residential units be designed to permit fee-simple conveyance, as well as limitations on the number of townhouses that may be located adjacent to each other, according to CRP.

NVEC member David Stone, meanwhile, said at Monday's meeting that his organization was not aware of CRP's ongoing dispute and the appeals are not connected.

Stone said NVEc would be like to have its attorney meet with the township's attorney

"We'd like to help resolve things," Stone said. "We have a pretty well thought out tier of possibilities to help resolve this. Some are more dramatic and might require an amendment. Others may not... We're ready to talk"

The Ferguson Township supervisors' statement on plan approval is in its entirety below:

As many in this community know, the Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors approved the Pine Hall Traditional Town Development General Master Plan on August 19, 2019. The Master Plan includes 1,029 dwelling units on approximately 150 acres of land located inside the Regional Growth Boundary and zoned for residential and mixed-use development. The development has a large thumb-print, which is why the Board of Supervisors, Planning Commission, and staff worked with the developer for over three years throughout the course of many public meetings to ensure the development would enrich, not detract from, the Township’s character.

The Pine Hall proposed development is located on property that was originally zoned for industrial uses in the 1970s. About 12 years ago, when the Traditional Town Development (TTD) zoning was proposed for the adjacent property, the Board saw a benefit to changing the industrial zoning to something that fit better with the development that had occurred in the intervening period. The TTD permits a mix of uses and is also designed to require higher density than other residential districts. It is located within the Regional Growth Boundary to prevent sprawl to rural areas. Additionally, there is an affordable housing requirement.

The current plan, approved in August, is a significant revision of the plan approved in 2010. Changes that were implemented by request of Township staff, residents, and elected officials in the three years of review of the plan included improvements to traffic circulation, housing affordability, and land uses. There was a focus on environmental sustainability, including the development of an Eco-District, the first of its kind in the region.

Some of the discussions focused on preservation of the existing wooded areas of the property. These trees are not part of a public forest as some have maintained. Municipalities in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are not permitted to regulate tree harvesting on private property. The TTD zoning, however, does require the retention or replacement of a percentage of the trees over a certain size within a development. It is the existence of a land development plan that affords protection to part of the wooded area. The Township worked with the developer and residents who attended public meetings to preserve and enhance many of the natural characteristics of the site wherever possible.

During public hearings on this plan on August 6th and 19th, this Board heard from several residents urging the Board to prohibit the developer from removing trees from the property, or to greatly increase the amount of wooded lands left untouched. As we explained at that time, those actions are not consistent with the Board’s authority. A Master Plan that conforms to zoning requirements has a right to approval by the Board of Supervisors. For this plan, all requirements of applicable ordinances were met. Some of the final details, including exact locations of trees to be maintained or replaced, will emerge in the reviews of the specific implementation plans that are submitted before the phases are built.

Among the long list of environmentally conscious regulations and initiatives the Township has undertaken in recent years are the creation of the Ridge Overlay, Riparian Buffer, and Sourcewater Protection Overlay districts. The Township has established a Climate Action Committee with the goal of developing a plan to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. We have invested millions of dollars in improving stormwater management to establish erosion controls and reduce pollutant offloads into the Chesapeake Bay tributary watersheds.

The Township employs a Board-Certified Master Arborist and has achieved Tree City USA designation for three straight years. We have employed initiatives to combat tree diseases including Emerald Ash Borer and Oak Wilt that threaten the thousands of acres of woodland located in the Township. Several months before the Pine Hall concerns emerged at the public hearing, the Board directed the Tree Commission to draft a true Tree Preservation Ordinance that will aim to incentivize and establish regulatory controls over the preservation of privately-owned tree canopy in association with land development to the extent permitted by state regulations.

While the Board and staff are encouraged by the outpouring of community interest and involvement in land development and other initiatives, it is critical that we work together in a strategic and productive manner so that we continue to grow in a sustainable direction. The Board shares the community’s concerns about a changing climate and has a proven track record of implementing public policies that protect our natural resources. There is room in the public discourse for these challenging conversations. In having those conversations, though, we must be mindful of the legal framework in which we are operating and tackle the challenging obstacles that allow us to advance as a community.

 

 



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