When a proposal for a new student housing development along West Whitehall Road in Ferguson Township was approved by the Board of Supervisors in March 2015, the community was quick in its response.
Primarily, the community was quick to voice its displeasure in the decision, saying that the location of the 268-unit development sat too close to the Harter-Thomas Wellfields, which provides drinking water to the State College Borough Water Authority. Residents say the potential for stormwater and construction runoff threatens the wellfields and the quality of water.
The development, proposed by Toll Brothers and dubbed the Cottages at State College, consists of 268 units providing 1,093 total bedrooms. The individual cottages will range from two- to three-story buildings with two to five bedrooms.
Recently, Toll Brothers reached out to the CDT seeking the opportunity to share its side of the story.
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Headquartered outside Philadelphia, Toll Brothers is a national homebuilding company that operates in 20 states and 50 markets, Campus Living Managing Director Charles Elliot said in an interview Thursday. The company develops and builds residential products across the country, ranging from student housing and apartments to single-family homes and townhouses.
“At the end of the day, what we do is build communities,” Elliot said.
Toll Brothers has been interested in developing in the State College area for some time, he said, and the cottages marks the first project in the Centre Region for the company. He described the development as a collection of small homes developed around recreation and open space.
The low-density project will house 60 percent fewer units than allowed on the land under its current R-4 zoning, he said, with more than 240 percent more contiguous open space and more than 90 percent more recreational space than required.
Toll Brothers has developed a number of cottage-style projects before, he said, but this marks the first time they’ve tried it as a student housing community. He likened the project to The Retreat at State College in College Township, which he described as “one of the most successful communities of its kind in the State College area.”
Similar projects have been well-received in other areas, Elliot said, as the development gives students a place to live outside of the residential neighborhoods, but also gives them the chance to create their own neighborhood. Management employees live in the community and provide a presence 24-7.
Several factors played into the location of the development, he said, as there weren’t many tracts to choose from in the area. The location is along the CATA bus line, he said. It also sits relatively close to the campus core and doesn’t present additional traffic issues when getting to the university.
Elliot said Toll Brothers brokered the deal to purchase the land from Penn State about four years ago.
Regarding the unique geology on which the property sits, Elliot said the company did its due diligence to evaluate the suitability of the property.
“We didn’t have any red flags thrown up,” he said. “Considering this (project) is a lower-impact development relative to the other stuff that sits on it, we didn’t think it would be problematic to develop something.”
Toll Brothers worked with Ferguson Township and the SCBWA to exceed the township’s stormwater regulations, he said.
This isn’t the first time the company has worked in sensitive areas, he said. Toll Brothers has developed across a wide range of environments including coastlines, wetlands and animal sanctuaries.
“We see these concerns across the country, and I think we have a very highly trained project management staff,” Elliot said. “We work through the issue with the best consultants we can.”
And Toll Brothers welcomes the feedback from the public, he said, saying they’re in the business of developing a community and being a good neighbor, not developing properties that will negatively affect the community.
He invited the community to examine the stormwater management system for the development, saying the design has addressed all potential concerns.
The need for housing is here, Elliot said. Both Penn State and the Centre Region continue to grow, and the growth needs to go somewhere before the community becomes unaffordable.
A development like the cottages attracts students away from the existing residential neighborhoods, he said, keeping existing rental housing more affordable.
Previously, residents had questioned Toll Brothers and its relationship with the Environmental Protection Agency. According to the EPA, in 2012 the company paid a civil penalty of $741,000 to “resolve alleged Clean Water Act violations at its construction sites, including sites located in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.”
The violations included the discharge of pollutants in stormwater from construction sites, the EPA said.
Toll Brothers had been working with the EPA since the early 2000s, Elliot said, after the EPA was tasked with looking at national homebuilders and how well they complied with stormwater regulations.
The fine covered issues that were about 10 years old, he said. Since then, the company has worked with the EPA to develop a best practice stormwater compliance system that requires frequent reporting to verify compliance with regulations.
“If you talk to the EPA today, it will say the Toll Brothers has one of the most rigorous stormwater compliance programs of its peer group,” he said.
Though the plan for the development was approved by the Board of Supervisors, litigation between a coalition of residents and the township has suspended the development for the current time. A recent motion to quash the appeal was denied by the Centre County court.
Further arguments regarding the suit are scheduled for July 13.
Elliot said he couldn’t comment on litigation matters but did say if the outcome required tweaks to the cottages plan, including the prospect of fewer units, they would be happy to do so.
“We want to do a project,” he said. “We want to be a good neighbor, and we’re willing to go through the process.”