The Township Council voted 4-1 Thursday to adopt a motion rezoning of the Hilltop property as gateway commercial zone.
The decision came following several hours, two public hearings and discussion between the council and a full-capacity room of residents.
Councilwoman Carla Stilson voted against the motion.
The council opened the first public hearing, discussion and questions on an amendment that would prevent buildings taller than 35 feet in height within 150 feet of any single family residence.
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The first hearing generated few questions. Council verified that any amendments to gateway commercial zoning would apply to all current gateway zoned areas and not only the proposed Hilltop property and additional properties.
However, many residents voiced their concerns during the second public hearing, which opened to questions and comments about the proposal of rezoning the Hilltop property as gateway commercial and the Thompson Woods Preserve as open space/recreational/conservation.
The comments were overwhelmingly negative toward the proposal.
Jon Jones, of Hill Drive, questioned if the 35-foot amendment would protect his own home, a home that was now slated to be rezoned as gateway commercial.
“If I’m rezoned,” he said, “I won’t be R-1 or R-2 anymore. I’m afraid I’ll have a 35-foot tall building next to me, which is about three stories.”
Jones also asked how the buffer will be measured, since a portion of the proposed zone rests on a hill. At the same time, he asked if 35 feet included structures on top of the building, including antennas which can reach up to 55 feet.
Niel Brandt, of Walnut Spring Lane, expressed his concern for the protection of the Thompson Woods Preserve. He referred to the land management plan for the woods and said the rules to protect the forest seemed reasonable. However, he wondered if the rules would be enforced.
“I walk in Thompson Woods every day,” he said. “Not even the present rules are being enforced. People ride bikes on paths that don’t allow bikes, people smoke. Imagine how it will be when 700 transient students live in the area.”
George Otto, of Oak Pointe Circle, offered a cautionary tale of living near a large student population.
“Constant radio noise disrupts the natural ambiance,” he said. “It gets even worse when events bring in louder noise, such as DJs.”
With as few as 50 to 100 students, he said, he could not even open his window at night. If the township decided to go through with the rezoning, he warned the council to very carefully think through the design.
Residents also shared previously voiced concerns of the environmental impact, stormwater runoff and increased traffic. A common theme among the comments echoed clearly: how does rezoning as gateway commercial benefit the neighborhood?
Pat Smith, who represents the owners of the Hilltop and adjacent properties, explained he and his clients felt it was a good proposal.
Concessions have been made on both sides, and he urged Township Council to move forward with the proposition.
The board unanimously adopted the amendment for the 150-foot restriction.
In discussion, the council requested a history of stormwater management on the property. Township engineer Kent Baker explained that stormwater regulations practically didn’t exist during development from the 1950s to the 1990s. With recent regulations implemented from 1992 through today, stormwater management has gotten stronger over the decades.
Any development would be required to mitigate runoff and would actually improve the situation, he said.
“Any time you develop a property, it’s going to increase the runoff. But with retention and runoff regulations now, it mitigates the additional runoff from any development.”
The council also addressed the issue raised by Jones, asking if the buffer would still apply to his property if rezoned as gateway commercial.
According to council Chairman Eric Bernier, he would receive greater protection under a gateway commercial zone than as an R-2 zone.
According to Centre Regional Planning Agency senior planner Mark Holdren there would still be the potential for 35-foot tall buildings to be developed near his property, the only difference would be the use of the building.
In discussing Thompson Woods, Township Manager Adam Brumbaugh explained that many ordinances, including those that govern Thompson Woods, are complaint-driven.
“If we receive a complaint that is actionable,” he said, “we can take steps to take care of it.”
Issues regarding the preserve have been addressed in the past, he said, with great success.
Baker said in perspective, there are other large parks near student-dense residential areas that have not experienced any problems.
Councilman Rich Franke thanked all the attendees for their participation, saying they all participated in “the purest form of democracy.”
Gateway commercial is the best opportunity for development along College Avenue, he said. If you don’t give the property the opportunity to develop, it will lay stagnant.
“I honestly think we did the right thing tonight,” Bernier said, “but only time will tell.”