The College Township Council will be sending the proposed Hilltop zoning amendments and zoning map to the Planning Commission with only a few minor adjustments.
During a special meeting Wednesday, the council approved proposing to rezone the Hilltop area into a gateway commercial zone, which would combine retail, businesses and residential structures into “mixed-use” properties. The council looked at two separate amendments to the area, along with a discussion on student housing restrictions.
The first amendment looked at building height restrictions near residential homes. According to Township Manager Adam Brumbaugh, buildings 55 feet tall will not be able to be constructed within 150 feet of any current single family residence. Buildings of lesser height will be permitted, but will still have a setback from those residences.
Uni-Tec Consulting Engineers President Patrick Ward, who represents property owners within the proposed gateway community zone, felt the rezoning could negatively impact the area. He proposed a scenario where a property within the 150 feet could be converted to residential, but the residents would not benefit from the buffer. He proposed having the 150 feet measured from the property structure rather than the property line.
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Concerns over building heights have been raised by residents within the zone in the past, such as Hilltop resident Eli Walters, who was in attendance. Walters said he would have no further objections if the 150-foot buffer was supported by the council.
“It’s the property line, not the structure, that impacts having a 55-foot building,” he said.
In the second amendment, the council explained that the former 50-foot buffer zone between the Thompson Woods Preserve and the proposed gateway commercial zone would be better separated by the natural vegetation of the woods than a stretch of open grass.
“It would make a lot more sense for a developer to keep the trees,” Chairman Eric Bernier said.
Some community members in attendance were worried about an influx of Penn State students into the woods, where they could leave trash or find a place to party. Brumbaugh assured the attendees that a management plan is in place with the ClearWater Conservancy that monitors the area and does “a substantial amount of work for the treatment of the preserve.”
Three properties along Hill Road and near Elmwood Avenue had requested to be added to the gateway zoning area. The council unanimously agreed to add the two residential properties as well as the property containing the Happy Valley Brewing Co.
In a previous meeting, residents had asked if banning student housing from the zone was an option. The council referred to solicitor Louis Glantz, who stated that “total prohibition on rentals would not hold up in court, but a restriction on student rentals would likely be sustainable.”
According to a memorandum by township engineer Kent Baker, Glantz felt some restrictions could be created, however, “it might be harder to defend in court unless we could provide specific reasons pertaining to health, safety and welfare.”
In a second memo from Zoning Officer Mike Heath describing his discussion with State College Zoning Officer Ann Messner, regulations could be created that mirrored the borough’s regulations on rentals in residential areas. In particular, the borough requires a “675-foot distance between property lines for student-occupied rentals.”
Resident Dave Porter disagreed with the council, saying that in a short time “kids will be swarming Hilltop.” In particular, he expressed concern over sexual assaults that happens on college campuses and the proximity of those students to nearby residences along Oak Ridge Avenue.
Bernier described the requirements for the zone, noting that in order to create residential, commercial development must be created as well. Specifically, 30 percent of development must be residential. “You can’t have a complex on the hill that’s just residential without having a commercial component,” he said.
Brumbaugh suggested that requesting so many requirements on residential units almost defeats the purpose of having a gateway zone. “You reach a point where you place so many restrictions on a zone and on potential properties that you won’t achieve what you set out to develop,” he said. “If you continue to make downward revisions, you’re going to preclude the type of development you want to see, which is mixed-use.”
The council passed a motion to advertise the amendments and the updated map. A public hearing on the Hilltop area is scheduled for Sept. 4.