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'Terraced' Zoning Wins Approval in Ferguson Township

on February 08, 2011 3:48 AM

Ferguson Township supervisors voted 4-1 Monday night to create a "terraced street-scape district," opening the door to higher and more dense development in a 35-acre area along West College Avenue.

George Pytel, Steve Miller, Richard Killian and Bill Keough voted for the zoning measure; Robert Heinsohn voted against it.

Their decision came after more than an hour of vigorous, sometimes-tense discussion, as about 100 people filled the supervisors' meeting room. Twenty of them spoke before the board -- 16 opposed to or critical of the proposal; four generally supportive of it.

In addition, a leader of the Protect Our Neighborhood Coalition presented the board with 468 petition signatures collected to oppose the plan. Group leader Pam Steckler said 158 of the signers live in Ferguson Township or work within the affected area.

"We are united against high density and high buildings," Steckler told the supervisors. " ... We've tried our best to reason with you."

The zoning decision will affect a swath of the township just west of State College borough. The affected area is bounded roughly by the borough to the east, Blue Course Drive to the west, the University Park campus and Penn State golf courses to the north, and Harley Alley to the south.

That area, which had been zoned for general commercial uses, will be open to higher-density commercial construction as the terraced street-scape district takes effect. Lots that border College Avenue and have at least an acre of ground may host the the biggest buildings -- as tall as 75 feet apiece. Smaller lots, and lots farther from College Avenue, will see smaller maximum building heights, as short as 35 feet.

The changes have been in the works more than a year. Advocates on the supervisors board have said the adjustments are necessary not only to help jump-start redevelopment and economic growth, but also to guide those efforts through design standards and other expectations.

The guidelines encourage pedestrian walkways, public transportation and bicycle use. They also call for on-site property management at new buildings with more than two floors of residential uses, among other neighborhood-friendly stipulations, supervisors said. (More specifics are posted via the township website.)

"It's a difficult situation we sit in because we need to represent the citizens where they are, where they live and so on. But we're also given the obligation of looking at futures and what's going to be in 20 years," Keough said. "That's the part of the crystal ball that gets real fuzzy, and it makes decisions more difficult."

For opponents of the proposal, meanwhile, the issue seemed anything but fuzzy. Some said they're worried about a dramatic influx of student housing in the area -- and behavior-related problems along with it.

Others focused more on the questions of overall density, general neighborhood character, and who stands to benefit most: township residents or developers.

"This has been my home of 17 years," said Joe Beddall, a West Beaver Avenue resident. "It is a quiet, safe, beautiful neighborhood. But I believe it will forever change" under the new zoning.

"I have no problem with someone making an honest buck, but not at my expense," Beddall said. "I do not believe that my property value will increase when they build these seven-story buildings."

Residents in the audience Monday night brandished about 10 signs, too, most decrying high density. One announced in bold letters: "Pandering to Developers at the Peril of Our Community = Fascism."

Richard Karten, a South Butz Street resident, said neighbors' concerns had been "dismissed out of hand." He urged the supervisors to "come back with a proposal that's more within the scale of this neighborhood."

Still, supervisors seemed to indicate that the written feedback they've received on the issue is -- on the whole -- more diverse in perspective.

Penn State, which has significant land holdings in the affected area, has registered general support for the zoning change.

"When I think about the zoning, when I think about the existing zoning, certainly something has to be done," said Daniel Sieminski, the university's associate vice president for finance and business. "I think this is an excellent approach."

He believes the incentives in the zoning will inspire "good development -- if and when it occurs," Sieminski said.

The university has grown its holdings in the West College Avenue area over the past several years. It has not announced specific plans for the area, though. Al Horvath, a senior vice president at Penn State, has said speculatively that university housing may be one use for the land.

Earlier coverage

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UPDATE: Higher-Density Zoning Approved in Ferguson Township
February 07, 2011 9:49 PM
UPDATE: Higher-Density Zoning Approved in Ferguson Township
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