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Surprising 'Development' in Hilltop Mobile Home Park Saga: Is White Knight Riding to the Rescue?

by on March 08, 2013 6:00 AM

For the first time since the Hilltop Mobile Home Park controversy began a developer revealed details about plans to build student housing on the site just off College Avenue. But a State College-based realtor stole the show. The startling turn of events happened at Thursday night's crowded College Township Council meeting.

The session began with a presentation from Travis Vencel, Vice President of Development for Indiana-based Trinitas Ventures. The company appeared before Council asking to rezone the Hilltop Mobile Home Park from R2 to R3. R3 would allow a variety of uses including Multi-family, townhomes and duplexes. Trinitas specializes in building projects designed for college students -- what Vencel described as people in the, "18 to 26 year-old age" bracket. Vencel says his company has built student housing near several universities including Purdue, University of Illinois and Indiana University.

According to Vencel, Trinitas Ventures likes the Hilltop site, “because of it’s proximity to campus and public transportation,” among other factors. Vencel told council members his company's preliminary plan calls for building 275 to 300 units on the 30-acre Hilltop site.

Following Vencel's presentation, some Council members expressed disappointment that he didn't address the need for rezoning -- and only talked about his company's building plans. Council Chairman, David Fryer, took Vencel to task for omitting key information in a letter sent to College Township requesting the zoning change. Fryer said there was, “no mention in here whatsoever about the focus on student housing” before adding, "I'm very disappointed."

Several people, many of them former Hilltop residents, spoke out against the planned development. And that set the stage for a dramatic announcement by a man who identified himself as State College realtor, Dave Fetzer. Fetzer, of the Heritage Realty Group, told council that he was in talks with investors who were considering buying the Hilltop property and keeping it as a mobile home park. Many in the audience applauded. Fetzer asked the council to table a decision for 60 to 90 days, to give him time to make a deal.

But Vencel, the Trinitas vice president, said, “there is a contract on the property and I cannot discuss the details.” Vencel indicated he was representing Sharon and Ken Mayes, the property owners. So it's not clear whether another buyer would even have a chance to purchase the property. The debate continued with council members facing three options; sending the rezoning issue to the planning commission, tabling the matter or rejecting it outright.

Councilman David Koll said that while he feels badly for former Hilltop residents, the matter needs to be reviewed by the planning commission to determine what's best for College Township.

Matthew Rooke, spokesperson for the Hilltop Resident Association made an impassioned appeal against rezoning. Rooke stated, "Going forward with this process woud be a step backward” for affordable housing. That sentiment was echoed by Colby Woodring. Woodring works for Housing Transitions, a non-profit organization that provides shelter to people in need. Woodring says that with mobile home parks closing and the Do De Hotel fire in Bellefonte, her organization has been swamped, trying to find housing for 220 families. Woodring added, "As a housing case manager I don’t feel we need any more student housing.”

Council Chair, David Fryer, noted that two student housing projects are currently in the works, adding, “I do not think we are in the market for any more student housing in this area.” Councilman Eric Bernier was particularly sympathetic to former Hilltop residents, saying “On this particular case I can’t get around the human factor”, adding that he wouldn't support sending the project to the planning commission.

In the end, council voted 3-1 to send the proposed development to the planning commission. Reviewing development plans is often a long process and could easily take six to nine months to complete. And council members appeared hopeful that an alternative to more student housing might still be found. 

Steve Bauer was the Managing Editor of Steve and his wife Trina are longtime area residents. They reside in State College along with a wacky Golden Retriever named Izzy.
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