After years of planning, as well as protests and legal action, Penn State has completed the sale of 45 acres of land along Whitehall Road in Ferguson Township to developer Toll Brothers, which intends to build a luxury student housing complex on the site.
The university said in a statement that the two parties closed on the sales agreement on Friday. Penn State entered into the contract in 2012 to sell the land to Toll Brothers for $13.5 million.
The land in Ferguson Township is part of a larger 565-acre parcel owned by the university. The statement added that the sale is "a critical step" in the creation of the planned, 100-acred Whitehall Road Regional Park adjacent to the development site. Toll Brothers has agreed to provide infrastructure support for the park, which is being developed by the Centre Region Council of Governments.
Ferguson Township supervisors in late 2015 approved Toll Brothers land development plan for the 264-unit The Cottages. A group of neighboring landowners formed the Nittany Valley Water Coalition and along with their supporters say that stormwater and construction runoff would harm Slab Cabin Run and the nearby Harter-Thomas well fields, the source of drinking water for the majority of homes served by the State College Borough Water Authority, which provides water to the Centre Region.
The coalition sued to have the approval overturned, arguing it violated township ordinances and the state's Municipal Planning Code. An initial victory for the coalition was overturned by Commonwealth Court earlier this year and in November the state Supreme Court denied a petition for appeal.
Penn State said on Friday that the sales agreement came after a long and complex process for water, environmental, zoning and traffic requirements and involved township, state and federal government and the water authority.
"The development proposed by Toll has been subjected by the township and the water authority to more stringent requirements to mitigate potential risks associated with water quality," the statement said. "This also is the first housing development that will have a monitoring well installed as part of the project and will utilize highly-regarded best management practices ... for storm water management. Construction of the Planned Residential Development conforms to current R-4 zoning and neighboring land uses."
During the summer and early fall protestors camped out on the site before being evicted by the university in October.
Members of the coalition, meanwhile, entered into talks with Toll Brothers and Penn State over potential alternate sites and in November, after two months of site study, the developer sent the university a letter of intent for its interest in a parcel on West College Avenue near the Penn State Blue Course and also located in Ferguson Township.
But the university said this week that it would not sell the West College Avenue property because it is "strategically important to the long-range health and growth of the University."
The coalition has vowed to sue Penn State if it closed on the Whitehall property. Members said they will ask a court to rule that Penn State is a trustee of the Commonwealth with fiduciary obligations to protect public resources. If a court were to rule that Penn State is not a state agency with those obligations and has "transformed itself from a public land grant institution into a fully private, non-governmental corporation," the coalition would ask that the university be stripped of its tax exemptions and public subsidies
"We’ll be striking at the root of Penn State's hybrid legal status that has allowed it to become a tax-exempt, publicly-subsidized, privately-governed, for-profit corporation,” coalition President Kelli Hoover, a Ferguson Township resident and an entomology professor at Penn State, said earlier this week.
Penn State acquired the overall property along Whitehall Road in 1999 from the Mellon Family Trust and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. Between 2008 and 2011, it sold 100 acres to Ferguson Township and the COG to develop the regional park.
Though planning has continued, development of the park stalled while litigation over the Toll Brothers development was ongoing.
The water authority also acquired 59 acres of the property for restricted conservation. In 2014, the university worked with community partners to develop the Musser Gap Greenway & Trail. The remaining acreage has been used for family farming.
"The subdivision plan for the original 565 acres, which was developed in conjunction with municipal and regional partners as part of the planning for a regional park, has been in place since 2008 and the sale of selected portions of the Mellon property was always a consideration," the university's statement on Friday said.