State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

The Villas at Happy Valley Set to Start Construction, Lawsuit Against Township Still in Place

by on August 20, 2012 6:00 AM

A September start date has been set for construction on the Villas at Happy Valley – an all-inclusive student housing complex on Trout Road.

The forward push is not without problems to be solved. Keystone Real Estate Group, the developer for the project, filed a lawsuit against College Township in August over nearly $1.2 million in fees.

Keystone Real Estate Group stated in its lawsuit the belief that there is an "apparent bias against potential Penn State undergraduate and graduate student tenants."

At least one council member said that is absolutely not the case.

However, negotiations were held regarding a required fee in lieu of parkland. Per a College Township ordinance, land dedicated to open space must be a part of any residential subdivision.

"Generally in any kind of residential subdivision the goal is to get a park that the adjacent residents can use," College Township council member Dan Klees said.

Given the plan presented for The Villas at Happy Valley, when the fees for Keystone Real Estate Group were calculated, they totaled $1,148,424. Steve Bisbee, Vice President for Development at Keystone said he believes one of the problems lies in the ambiguity of the ordinance that sets the fees.

"In Centre County, every township has its own set of ordinances and standards, Bisbee said. "In this particular case ... the way to calculate a fair fee is terribly ambiguous."

The development plan meets the township's requirements "on technical merits," Klees said, and that much background discussion was going on regarding the fees so that the Keystone Real Estate Group and the township could come to an agreement.

According to the parkland ordinance, a certain percentage of land in any residential subdivision has to be usable, functional open space. When interpreted for single-family dwellings, Klees said the ordinance is much easier to define.

"In a townhome development that's a little harder to define. We took out things like parking lots and the driveways because that would be the same as streets," Klees said.

Klees said there is a formula in place for calculating the parkland fees, but Keystone Real Estate Group's lawsuit states their belief that there's another factor in place.

Bisbee said he believes council "made it clear the township was not happy about having student housing in its municipality." Given the ambiguity of the ordinance mandating open space, Bisbee said Keystone Real Estate felt relying on the legal system was the route they had to take.

In a press release announcing the lawsuit, Bisbee uses two excerpts from the March 15 College Township Council meeting – when the development plan for the Villas was approved – that he says points to the township's bias against students living in the area.

"When addressing neighboring property owners at a public hearing, College Township Council member Dan Klees was quoted as saying "I don't like the plan . . . What would you give me that I haven't been able to find to deny this plan . . . What information does anyone have that will give me the power to deny this and win in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas?"

Klees said his remarks were taken out of context.

"I don't like the plan, I don't like (the plan) in the sense of how the units are arranged and how the driveways are arranged.

"We just approved another student complex on the other side of town, so to say we are opposed to student housing, that's obviously not true.

I think I voted for the plan in the end," Klees said.

Many local residents attended the March 15 meeting to express their ire over the new development. Klees said his second comment was an open-ended one directed at the angry residents.

"Residents wanted us to deny the plan. I told them to tell me something I didn't know," Klees said. By that point, council was ready to approve the plan as it met all of the requirements.

"I asked them ... there was no answer," Klees said. "There was no technical reason to deny the plan."

There was no indication of the board being anti-student housing at that juncture, Klees said. As elected officials, council has to find a balance between serving all residents, be they students, families or otherwise.

Currently, there is no timetable as far as court dates for Keystone Real Estate Group's lawsuit while the township is given time to file paperwork. Bisbee said he is looking forward to seeing the development of the Villas begin and satiate some of the demand for student housing in State College.

"With an influx of students going to the university, clearly there's going to be some challenge between town and gown," Bisbee said. That's just something that's we're going to have to continue to manage well.

Managed by Keystone-affiliated company the Apartment Store, 444 E. College Ave., marketing for The Villas at Happy Valley will begin over the next few months. The development's first residents will be able to move in starting in Fall 2013.

Amenities of the approximately 6,000 square foot complex include a fitness center, study rooms and general meeting areas, a pool and clubhouse, volleyball courts and bicycle paths.

"They can really enjoy it. There are really some spectacular views of Beaver Stadium and its situated in a shopping area," Bisbee said.

"It's where students can just enjoy being in Happy Valley."

The video clips from the March 15 meeting referenced above are below. More information from the meeting can be found at College Township's website.

Laura Nichols is a news reporter and @LC_Nichols on Twitter.
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