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Residents Continue Camp Out to Protest Toll Brothers Development

by on June 05, 2017 12:30 PM

The encampment of a group of area residents protesting Penn State's planned sale of land to Toll Brothers and the builder's proposed residential development continued into its third day on Monday.

Along with several tents in the sprawling field, signs urging Penn State not to sell the land and banner that reads "We Are (Waiting for) Penn State (to Join the Community)" were put up along the roadside near the intersection of Whitehall Road and Blue Course Drive in Ferguson Township, in the area where Toll Brothers plans to build a 264-unit luxury student housing development call The Cottages at State College.

"We hope to continue this occupation for as long as it takes," said Andy McKinnon, who has been camping at the site since Saturday and stood on the side of the road holding a protest sign Monday morning.

McKinnon is a member of the Nittany Valley Water Coalition and one of 15 Ferguson Township landowners who appealed township supervisors' November 2015 decision to approve the final Planned Residential Development plan for The Cottages. The coalition argued that the township's approval violated its own ordinances and the state Municipal Planning Code.

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

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 coalition is planning to appeal the latest ruling to Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and at the same time has renewed its request for Penn State to withdraw from the sale agreement.

"We’re growing our numbers all the time, especially since the latest legal event where the toll brothers appealed our successful suit against them and Ferguson Township," McKinnon said. "The latest decision was in favor of Toll Brothers, so that has galvanized a lot of people. A lot of people are realizing this is serious business."

McKinnon said they've had more than 100 people on site since Saturday and passed out thousands of leaflets. He added that people have stopped by to make donations and give food to those who are camping out. Some of those participating, meanwhile, planted a garden on the grounds over the weekend.

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.

Coalition member Kelli Hoover said in a press release on Sunday that the land for the proposed development is on the same watershed as ClearWater Conservancy's 300-acre Slab Cabin Run conservation easement project, which is seeking to protect the same well fields the coalition says the development threatens.

"Obviously [the development] is going to destroy the landscape, but it could also destroy the water supply," McKinnon said. "It’s about the stupidest place you could imagine for a housing development, any kind of development like that where it’s possible you could get a lot of contamination, because it’s right up gradient from two key well fields that provide two-thirds of the water for the State College area."

Thirty-eight acres of the property, where the units would be built, are zoned R4 for multi-family residential use. A stormwater management facility is planned for 5.5 acres of Rural Agriculture-zoned land, which the coalition argued violates the township's zoning ordinance.

Part of the issue is that the area where the stormwater basin would be located is around a prominent swale that could ultimately carry pollutants to Slab Cabin Run and the well fields.

"The swale is there because it conforms to a fracture in the subsurface that’s been identified on the map," McKinnon said. "If contaminants get down into that fracture they could be carried down into the well fields and degrade our water."

The coalition has also said that the site has existing sinkholes and cited a commissioned 2014 report that said the development project could increase the risk of sinkhole formation in the area.

After the coalition sent its letter to Penn State last week, Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said the university is always concerned about water quality, but that 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," said Powers, who noted Penn State is not involved in the development apart from agreeing to sell the land. The Cottages also would be the first housing development in the region to have a monitoring well installed as part of the project.

She added that the township's ordinances meet or exceed state laws for controlling stormwater runoff and protecting groundwater quality.

For McKinnon personally, leaving the land untouched would be ideal.

"It’s beautiful. Nature has its place," McKinnon said. "There’s habitat here that will be destroyed. All the species of plants and animals that have been here for millennia they deserve to stay here. In my opinion they have intrinsic rights."

He noted the Community Bill of Rights passed by township residents in 2012 that recognizes rights for nature. But, he added, the coalition has also discussed ways the land could be used that would be sustainable and community friendly.

One of those ways is using part of the land for solar arrays.

"There’s a possibility of making a lot more money than that with certain business ventures that are more sustainable – renewable energy production things like that," he said.

With Penn State being the state's only land-grant university, the land could be an educational and research resource as well, he said.

"The students can come out here and they can study how to farm sustainably," he explained. "They can study the flora and fauna and be on the lookout for plant diseases, pests that inhibit good farming practices... Things that are truly agriculturally aligned and support Penn State’s vision as a land grant university."

Hoover said that residents want Penn State "to act in the interest of the community and [the university's] strategic plan," which names environmental stewardship and protection of natural resources as a priority.

Powers said last week that extracting Penn State from the sale agreement now "would mean substantial penalties," for the university. 

The residents aren't sure how long the encampment will go on and will "play it by ear," McKinnon said. They've been encouraged by the support they've received since Saturday. He added that it's not clear whether the land they are camped on is State College Borough property or part of the total 550 acres of land in the area Ferguson Township that Penn State purchased in 1999.

"We hope to keep up the energy, get more people setting up tents and more people expressing support for maintaining the health of the environment and the health of the 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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