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Residents Express Concerns over Pine Hall Development Plans

by on August 06, 2019 4:04 PM

During a two-hour public hearing on Monday night, residents voiced concerns about the amount of trees that will be removed from Pine Hall Forest in Ferguson Township as part of the proposed Pine Hall Traditional Town Development master plan.

The planned 150-acre commercial and residential development near the intersection of Blue Course Drive and Old Gatesburg Road would remove about 55 acres of the 65-acre forest, with Texas-based developer Residential Housing Development LLC replacing 40 percent of the removed trees with new plantings.

"[They're] going to basically remove all of the existing forest on this land," township resident and tree commission chair Howard Fescemyer said. "I don’t know if people realize that."

Ferguson Township's traditional town development ordinance requires the 40 percent of trees be retained or replaced. Most of the 14 residents who spoke on Monday night advocated for township supervisors to require the 40 percent be retained, or the developer to voluntarily do so.

But Board of Supervisors Chair Steve Miller said if the plan meets township ordinances, supervisors are required to approve it. If it does not, they have to give the developer an opportunity to address any deficiencies in a resubmitted plan.

"Before this TTD zoning existed, that property was zoned industrial and there was no restriction on the cutting of trees," Miller later said. "...[A]t any time people can cut down trees on their private property. The township doesn’t own the property. We don’t have an ability to say there are trees here and you can’t cut them down. Under state law they can cut them down and we can’t stop that. The only way we regulate removal of trees is through what is in the ordinance. Whether it was written the best it could be, I don’t know, but it’s what exists. And we’re looking at a master plan that is in the context of the ordinance it’s being proposed in."

Charles Suhr, an attorney representing Residential Housing, said the master plan does not ask for any waivers to the ordinance and that it meets both the TTD ordinance requirements and the township's vision for a traditional town development in the area.

Plans for the Pine Hall development were first brought forward in 2009, but the current iteration dates back to 2016 when the developers presented the concept to the supervisors, land designer Peter Crowley said. Following a work session with township staff, supervisors and the public a new plan was developed in 2017 and a master plan submitted in 2018. That was later revised after another work session.

The proposed multi-phase master plan includes 30 acres of commercial development with commercial and mixed-use buildings, including a cinema, hotel, grocery store, food service, office and retail buildings. The residential portion includes 1,029 dwelling units with a mix of detached, semi-detached and attached single family homes, multi-family units and vertical mixed-use development. Workforce housing will be included at a ratio of one per 10 dwelling units. An eco-district, with units aligned for solar energy capture and other green and low-impact development strategies, is part of the plan.

Cary Hulse, senior urban forester with Wetland Studies and Solutions, a consultant for the developer, said a study of Pine Hall Forest found 9,540 native living trees that qualified under the township ordinance, 10 invasive trees and 713 dead trees. Michael Pratt, of Keller Engineers, said under the master plan, about 8,100 native living trees would be removed, 1,400 retained and 2,450 replaced.

Several residents who spoke said removing that volume of mature trees will have a negative effect on the environment and human health.

Fescemyer said mature forests improve mental health through aesthetics and recreation and provide water table management and groundwater recharge, sequester carbon, moderate temperature extremes, and filter air and water pollutants. 

"Human-based infrastructure replacing ecosystem services are expensive and require long-term maintenance and monitoring," he said. "Small young replacement trees planted as mitigation only provide a fraction of the benefits that a mature forest performs."

He added that a fragmented forest as proposed in the master plan is more susceptible to disease, invasive species and wind damage.

Randy Hudson, a township resident and Nittany Valley Environmental Coalition member, said ideally the developer would work around the existing forest, but retaining 40 percent would be acceptable. He said the planned stormwater basins are bigger than what the remaining tree area would be and that trees could be preserved through creative and environmentally-sound ways of reducing stormwater areas and surface parking.

"Development is a good thing if it’s done the right way," Hudson said. "Let’s not destroy 10 large trees and 100 medium trees and replace them with four small replacement trees. That is in no way common sense."

Benner Township resident David Roberts said he is concerned about the level of development that already exists and creates stormwater that is deleterious to the region's cold water streams.

"We are at or even beyond the tipping point for where the amount of impervious surfaces impacts cold water streams to such a degree that we lose our trout populations," Roberts said. "These natural forests are extremely beneficial to absorb rainfall and not create stormwater that then has to be managed. You’re not going to get the same type of water management from plantings that you get from undisturbed forest areas."

Removing so much of the forest is also contrary to Ferguson Township's stated environmental goals, NVEC President Dorothy Blair said. The township, which has a Tree City USA designation, has adopted an environmental bill of rights and a commitment to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. She added that the development's design process did not involve local environmental groups like ClearWater Conservancy and the Sierra Club Moshannon Group, or the township's own tree commission.

"Local forests are an increasingly rare amenity that should not be cut down to accommodate new development unless there is no alternative," Blair said. 

Resident Mary Krupa said the area already has plenty of housing and retail spaces, but the forest is irreplaceable as a home to a diverse array of wildlife.

"Once it’s gone it’s gone. You can’t just replace it with little plantings and solar panels and pat yourself on the back because that’s not going to cut it," Krupa said. "You can’t just keep developing forever. You take an acre here, an acre there and before you know it, there’s nothing left. This is not just developable acreage. It’s a forest; it’s a living thing. It’s part of our heritage. It’s not just something you can give away to the latest out-of-state developer that promises you a check."

Supervisor Richard Killian said he appreciated residents' comments but that they seemed to be focused on the "micro level" of this specific site. The proposed development is within the growth boundary, which he said on a "macro" level is designed to preserve trees, open space and farmland.

"[The TTD] is intended, in my mind, to encourage development in the growth boundary," Killian said. "So we can say enough is enough. This is where you develop. Don’t expect to go out and start rezoning farmland, other forested areas. We’ve created that boundary. This is to encourage smart growth and avoid sprawl and commuters that produce greenhouse gases and increase traffic congestion."

If the master plan is approved, specific implementation plans will be submitted for review and approval of each phase of the development. The plan proposes three main phases with a series of sub-phases. Township Manager David Pribulka said the first will construct infrastructure, a village area, retail center, "townhomes on the green," and the hotel. The second will be houses and mid-rise buildings and the third will be the eco-district and garden-style units. The township and developer also will be required to execute a workforce housing agreement and necessary traffic improvements — some of which are already planned by the township and some which will be paid for by the developer.

Supervisors are scheduled to vote on the master plan at their Aug. 19 meeting. Though typically public comment would not be received following the end of a public hearing on the matter, Miller said he will open public comment on the master plan for a limited amount of time on Aug. 19.

"The question of the trees is really not something we can address," he said.

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