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Students Protest Toll Brothers Development in Ferguson Township

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Three Penn State student groups on Monday added their voices to the protest against Penn State’s sale of land in Ferguson Township to Toll Brothers, which plans to build luxury student housing on the site.

Joined by members of the Nittany Valley Water Coalition and other residents, students led a protest outside of Old Main and delivered letters to university leadership on behalf of the Penn State College Democrats, Fossil Free PSU and Eco Action.

‘This isn’t just a State College [area] resident issue,’ said Rylie Cooper, a member of Penn State College Democrats. ‘This is a student issue too.’

The letter, delivered to the Board of Trustees office and the Office of Finance and Business, calls on the university to implement policies for public input, increase student and faculty members on the Board of Trustees, and go through with a proposed land swap for Toll Brothers to build the development elsewhere.

‘Students, staff and the community need a better voice,’ said Anthony Zarzycki, programming director for Penn State College Democrats. ‘This sale never should have happened and we need to prevent it from happening in the future.’

Penn State agreed to sell 44 acres near the intersection of Whitehall Road and Blue Course Drive in Ferguson Township to the Horsham, Pa.-based developer for $13.5 million, pending land use approval.

For years since the project was first announced, some residents have been vocal in their opposition, citing the potential effects of construction and stormwater runoff on the nearby Slab Cabin Run and Harter-Thomas well fields, the source of drinking water for the majority of homes served by the State College Borough Water Authority. The site has existing sinkholes and a swale that could carry pollutants into the water table, protestors have said.

A group of 15 neighboring landowners formed the Nittany Valley Water Coalition and sued to have the township Board of Supervisors’ approval of the plan overturned, arguing it violated township ordinances. 

A Centre County Court of Common Pleas judge agreed with the coalition last summer, but in May a Commonwealth Court panel vacated that decision and effectively quashed the residents’ appeal. They have petitioned the state Supreme Court to hear the case.

Since June 2, members of the coalition and other residents have camped on the site, and on July 20 Penn State, which still owns the land until the planned development can proceed, posted ‘No Trespassing’ signs, saying the encampment violated university policies and that signs posted near the roadway were in violation of township ordinances. Residents continue to camp on the site and Penn State has not yet had further communication with coalition members about the ‘No Trespassing’ signs.

Last week coalition members met with university representatives to propose Penn State-owned land that could be substituted for the Ferguson Township site. On Wednesday, they are scheduled to meet with Penn State and Toll Brothers representatives.

Photo by Geoff Rushton/

Toll Brothers plans to build a 264-unit luxury student housing development on the site. Cooper said that the development has been portrayed to her as having the potential to drive down the cost of student housing, but said she sees the opposite happening.

‘All it’s doing is raising the cost of student housing,’ Cooper said. ‘As a student I can’t afford to pay $700, $800, $900 or even $1,000 dollars just to have a bed to sleep in, and when Penn State isn’t providing me with student housing, it just doesn’t seem fair to me.’

Coalition member Kelli Hoover, a Ferguson Township resident and Penn State professor of entomology, agreed that affordable housing is an issue in the area and that a luxury development will drive prices higher. She said that the land swap may not outright address the affordable housing issue, but could lead to lower rent prices in the development.

It wouldn’t necessarily solve that issue, but it is something we plan to bring up with the Toll Brothers on Wednesday,’ Hoover said. ‘The sites we’re looking at are closer to core campus and they could go with more density and be able to make it perhaps a little more affordable for students if they do a redesign of their program.’

Hoover added that in their meeting last week, Penn State officials seemed open to working out an alternative plan.

‘There’s a lot of bad will in this community toward Penn State for all of the things that have happened in the last few years,’ she said. ‘This land swap would allow Toll Brothers and Penn State to come out as heroes. It would allow Toll Brothers to be welcomed in the community. Students are talking about boycotting that development. I don’t know how many would go along with it, obviously, but on the other hand who wants that kind of publicity.’

Hoover said that the coalition believes the proposed swap sites would save Toll Brothers on infrastructure costs and bring the development to a more desirable location closer to the core campus.

Cooper and Zarzycki also cited Penn State’s issues with its own campus water supply. In November 2016, the university said that testing had detected lead in the tap water in several campus buildings. Follow-up testing indicated three buildings in the Nittany Apartments complex had levels above the EPA action level. Penn State said its source water, which is pumped from the Big Hollow and Houserville well fields, does not have lead and that campus plumbing does not have lead pipes.

‘It seems absurd to me that if we can’t even clean up our own mess on campus, how are we going to be able to clean up our mess in Ferguson Township?’ Cooper said.

The university said on Monday it adheres to all Safe Drinking Water Act standards for potential contaminants.

‘The University has been testing all buildings and facilities at the University Park campus out of an abundance of caution,’ a Penn State spokesman said. ‘In addition, testing has confirmed that source water delivered into our distribution system and to our buildings is safe to drink.

‘In a few specific instances where initial sampling exceeded the [Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection] action levels, subsequent follow-up testing returned results that were either non-detect for lead, or below the DEP’s action level.’

The students said that the land sale is an example of university administrators and trustees not listening to Penn State and local community members.

‘First, the approval of a sale with overwhelming criticism from residents, who echoed Pennsylvania State University’s self-avowed dedication to safety and environmental protection, is inexcusable,’ the letter to university leadership stated. ‘Second, the lack of student, professor, staff and community input for such a crucial transaction is irresponsible.’

Zarzycki said the issue is not a political one, and that the groups that signed the letter will be reaching out to other organizations, including College Republicans.

‘This affects everyone on campus. It’s their voices that aren’t being heard,’ he said. ‘They don’t vote for the trustees and neither do we.  That’s an issue we can get together on.’

Hoover said coalition members are happy to see student organizations get involved.

‘It means a lot,’ she said. ‘We’ve had students involved from the beginning. Students are getting involved because they care about affordable housing and they also care about the community and the quality of our water. The vast majority of students live in State College area but not necessarily on campus. They get their water from the State College Borough Water Authority which could be affected by this development.’