Ferguson Township supervisors on Monday unanimously approved the Pine Hall Traditional Town Development master plan, following another lengthy discussion and public comment period during which some residents continued to express concerns over the number of trees that will be removed for the project.
Plans for the 150-acre commercial and residential development along Blue Course Drive and Old Gatesburg Road include removal of 55 acres of the 65-acre Pine Hall Forest, with Texas-based developer Residential Housing Development LLC replacing 40 percent with new plantings.
About 8,100 native living trees will be removed, 1,400 retained and 2,450 replaced. As they did at an Aug. 5 public hearing and in other public forums, some community members said that will have a negative impact on the environment, wildlife and human health.
Some suggested supervisors had more power than they claim to impose restrictions on development. Others asked supervisors to look into buying and preserving part of the forest. Several said the plan conflicts with the township's community bill of rights and committed environmental goals.
Nittany Valley Environmental Coalition asked supervisors to delay the vote and continue to work with the developer on retaining, rather than replacing 40 percent of the trees. The township's traditional town development ordinance, created in 2009, requires 40 percent be retained or replaced.
"Our single request is to please not enable the destruction of Pine Hall Forest," NVEC member Mike Costello said. "You have worked with Pine Hall TTD developer RHI to reach this point. Continue to work together to improve the proposed new town. Only vote to proceed once a modest goal, protection of 40 percent of the forest, has been achieved."
David Hughes, a Penn State entomology and biology professor who was a vocal advocate against the Toll Brothers development on Whitehall Road, said it is "outrageous" to remove a large number of trees when "old growth trees are greatest defense against climate change."
"At which point do you act on behalf of community members you propose to serve?" he asked.
Township solicitor Joseph Green said at the start of the discussion, however, that if a private property owner submits a plan that meets ordinances, supervisors are required to approve it.
"There’s no overarching umbrella of restrictions which may be imposed upon the landowner in addition to the specific requirements of the zoning ordinance or applicable land use ordinance in these circumstances," Green said.
Board chair Steve Miller, who said the current master planning process that began three years ago has been "very open," added that state law prohibits municipalities from preventing the cutting of trees. Forestry is a permitted use by right in every zoning district in Pennsylvania.
The traditional town development ordinance includes a 40 percent retention or replacement requirement, he said, to help maintain some trees.
"If a property owner was required to retain 100 percent of the trees, I would expect that the property would be logged before the master plan came to us so there would be no trees to protect," Miller said.
Supervisor Laura Dininni said she is "very disappointed" in some aspects of the plan and that she felt "powerless" because of state laws. She voted in favor of the plan because it met requirements and because without a master plan, the entire property could be clear cut.
An approved master plan from 2011 is on record, but developers began working on a new plan in 2016 with public input to better fit the area. Residential Housing could have developed under that plan, or withdrawn it and logged the entire forest.
"If you’re asking us to deny this plan because you think it will provide an opportunity to not lose those trees, you are incorrect," she said. "I’m sorry, but you’re problem with the removal of the trees should be directed to the state."
Residential Housing partner Derek Anderson said that the developers will continue to work on finding ways to save more trees on the property and are commissioning another study to identify trees an arborist determines to be "of special value." He said they are also researching ideas presented by members of the public for aspects such as stormwater design and green space.
"I think it’s important to note this master plan does save more trees than the currently approved master plan, while accommodating the new stormwater ordinance, which makes it more difficult to accomplish that," Anderson said.
Supervisor Ford Stryker called himself a "tree-hugger" and said he wants to save as many trees as possible, but said the plan could be worse, pointing to a Toftrees development where an entire wooded area was cut down.
"By comparison it’s a much more responsible development," Stryker said.
Miller also said that the development is within the growth boundary, and that the traditional town development ordinance was created to focus high-density development within the boundary and prevent sprawl.
Not all of the public comments, however, were about the forest. Missy Schoonover, executive director of the Centre County Housing and Land Trust, thanked supervisors for including workforce housing requirements in the plan. The development is expected to have 1,023 residential units, 10 percent of which, or around 100, will be affordable housing, with a mix of apartments, townhomes and single-family homes.
"The affordable housing situation in our region does not improve. It continues to get worse," Schoonover said. "We do see many many people who work here in our township who have to travel great distances because of housing... To see these units come to pass for over a hundred potential families, I hope that this is a success others will look to and say, 'If Ferguson Township can do it then so can we," because it is needed."
Anderson said that as part of the master plan, 50 to 60 of the affordable housing units are required to be built in the first phase.
The multi-phase plan — which will require specific implementation plans before development — also includes 30 acres of commercial development with commercial and mixed-use buildings, including a cinema, hotel, grocery store, food service, office and retail buildings.
Asked why a movie theater and grocery store are specifically identified for the development, Anderson said those decisions were made based on ordinance requirements, public feedback and working with a consultant.
"We need certain anchor tenants to make a retail center actually work," Anderson said. "What you see before you is what we believe is necessary to create a thriving, dynamic town center for Ferguson Township."