FERGUSON TOWNSHIP — Though his home only claims about five feet of a 1.6-acre park at the center of an ongoing controversy, Fred Hammer and his wife, Nina, have enjoyed the Overlook Heights space since 1985.
“That green space is the big backyard that everybody would love to have,” he said Sunday, while cooking dinner in his North Allen Street home.
The couple and other neighbors will attend the Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors meeting tonight, as the board discusses its potential role in the fate of the park, which the State College Area School District placed for sale. The school board will decide whether to accept one of the submitted bids at its Aug. 13 meeting.
Referred to as Cromer Park or North Hills Place Park, the space is bordered by homes on North Allen, North Hills Place, Clinton Avenue, and by homes and businesses on North Atherton Street.
At odds are the bordering neighbors, who formed a partnership and pooled their money to bid $8,100, and Scott and Stephanie Fozard, who bid $20,100 as Fozard Enterprises. The Hammers are part of that partnership.
The Fozards are renovating a property in the 1300 block of North Atherton to house Stephanie Fozard’s optometry practice. Scott Fozard said they want to purchase the park so that, if the practice is successful after it opens this fall and they want to expand, they can add 50 feet of parking into the park space.
“We’re utilizing all the space we can,” he said. “That’s our sole interest in the property.”
Neighbors have said they aren’t sure they believe that, and that a commercial interest flies in the face of the intent of former resident Abbie Cromer. She gave the park to the then-Ferguson Township School District in 1963, stating it should be used only as a public playground or park.
The school district, now State College Area, has maintained it since, and chose to sell it this year, as it believes the space has no educational value.
Fozard has offered to lease the park to the residents, should his bid be accepted, with the understanding that they would maintain it and he would be allowed to proceed with constructing parking spaces.
He said last week he has tried to reach out to the partnership, with no success, through Ferguson Township Manager Mark Kunkle, and through an attorney he believes had contact with the neighbors.
“We’ve reached out to them in all means that we know,” he said. “At this point we’ve had nobody at all from the neighborhood contact us to try to get a sense of where we stand.”
But neighbors say they haven’t received those messages.
“I haven’t seen him knocking on my door,” Fred Hammer said.
And Hammer said he doesn’t believe the neighborhood would benefit from even a piece of commercial space in the park.
“The way I saw the compromise was, if they chop off my fingers, I’ll keep them from taking my whole hand or arm,” he said.
Several school board members, at their July 23 meeting, said their role is to take action, and that the board is not responsible for negotiating an agreement between Fozard and the neighbors.
Fozard said it’s “unfortunate” the parties haven’t been able to reach a resolution and that the township and school district have been “pulled into it.”
Kunkle last month sent a letter to the district, outlining some options other than accepting the high bid, which district solicitor Scott Etter said it likely must do, because of the large difference between bids.
The district could, for instance, convey the property to the township, which supervisors will discuss tonight.
“They, in turn, could retain the property and maintain it, and enter into a lease with the property owners,” Kunkle said of the supervisors.
However, in the past, the township board has expressed no interest in taking over the park.
Richard Killian, who used to serve on that board, is now involved in keeping the park as it is. He lives two blocks away, on Harris Street, and said he’s concerned because the park has served a specific role.
“That was always in mind to be a buffer between Atherton commercial and the neighborhood,” he said, adding that Fozard’s change would be a “huge impact.”
Jessica VanderKolk can be reached at 235-3910. Follow her on Twitter @jVanReporter