Halfmoon Township supervisor candidates focus on open space program

jvanderk@centredaily.comOctober 26, 2013 

  • Donald Houtz, 53

    Occupation: Self-employed

    Political office: None

    Education: State College Area High School

    Family: Wife; three children; four grandchildren

    Barbara Spencer, 61

    Occupation: Sixth-grade learning support teacher at West Branch Elementary in Morrisdale

    Political office: Halfmoon Township supervisor for six-plus years

    Education: Master’s degree in special education; bachelor’s degrees in education and psychology

    Family: Husband; four stepchildren

    Mark Stevenson, 52

    Occupation: Senior investment adviser, Wilmington Trust Co.

    Political office: Halfmoon Township supervisor since 2008 and current chairman

    Education: Bachelor’s degree in pre-law from Penn State; master’s in international economics and U.S. foreign policy from American University; earned chartered financial analyst designation from CFA Institute

    Family: Wife; three daughters

Halfmoon Township’s open space preservation program will be the top priority for supervisors heading into 2014, according to two incumbents and a political newcomer vying for two board seats.

Don Houtz will run as a Republican, Vice Chairwoman Barbara Spencer ran as a Republican in the primary and also received a Democratic nomination, and Chairman Mark Stevenson will run as a Democrat.

The open space preservation program started in 1999 when residents approved a 2 mill property tax increase to pay for it, raising about $136,000 per year. Property owners with 10 or more acres can enter 99-year leases with the township, and about 2,000 acres currently are preserved.

The program has been on hiatus since mid-2012 in order for the program and supervisor boards to address questions raised about it, like how to address properties with mortgages that might run into financial hardship and how to handle advance lease payments.

Houtz said he thinks the program needs to “go away” entirely and that the board isn’t working on issues of concern to residents and isn’t considering the big picture in the township.

“That’s not to say I don’t believe our board works hard,” he said. “I just don’t think they have the training to see the big picture. I just think they need some support.”

Houtz said Halfmoon needs a growth plan, and that there seems to be resistance to growth.

“I would rather direct the growth than just sit and accept the growth,” he said. “You do a proactive development plan, you’ll pick where the subdivision goes.”

With experience in developing homes and owning his own businesses, Houtz said he understands the impacts on a community and that the township should be proactive about telling developers where it wants growth.

Stevenson and Spencer, who are promoting each other’s re-election, both said the township is making good progress on the open space program.

Spencer called the program “wonderful,” but said there are problems to be resolved, like inclusion of land that’s not appropriate for development anyway.

“We’re working very hard to make it more solid, something that will protect the funds that are being put into it to make it work,” she said. “We’re encouraging more of the developable land to be phased into open space.”

Spencer also wants to continue work on bike trails in Halfmoon that will connect the township to its neighbors.

“But that’s a costly project and we have to work at meeting those goals without going broke,” she said. “So we have to approach those slowly, and I hope the citizens will be patient with that because we want to do it the right way.”

Also a farmer in the township, Spencer said she wants to protect the township’s rural integrity. She said the township must allow for some growth as it also preserves agricultural land, so the township can support more park areas and continue services for residents.

Stevenson said efforts to improve the open space program are nearing conclusion and predicted it will be up and running again next year. He said the program board has reworked language related to properties in the lien program and improvements are being made to the property rating system.

“It’s a signature program in our township,” he said.

While it’s not on the discussion table now, how to balance that preservation with growth will be a future conversation, Stevenson said.

“If we’re going to develop somewhere, say, close to Patton Township, and allow more density there, in exchange for that density I would like to see more aggressive preservation” in the area of Stormstown, he said.

He agreed with Spencer that a goal is to keep the township as “rural-looking” as possible.

Jessica VanderKolk can be reached at 235-3910. Follow her on Twitter @jVanReporter.

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