College Township Council moves Hilltop rezoning request forward after debate

After two hours of passionate debate on whether the site of the Hilltop Mobile Home Park should be rezoned to accommodate other housing types, the Township Council on Thursday voted 3-1 to move the request to the Planning Commission for further review.

Eric Bernier opposed and Mary Shoemaker was absent, leaving Dave Fryer, Dave Koll and Forrest Remick in favor of allowing the process to proceed.

Lafayette, Ind.-based developer Trinitas Ventures requested the site be rezoned from mobile home park to R3 residential, which would allow a proposed 275- to 300-unit student housing complex. Travis Vencel, of Trinitas, said the units are called “student housing” because they’re designed for 18- to 26-year-olds, but that anyone can live there.

The request comes after Hilltop owners Kenneth Mayes and his sister, Sharon Mayes, told residents last fall that the park would close and be sold. The deadline to move was Feb. 28, and about 20 people remain at the park. Matt Rooke, president of the resident association and leader of the charge to save the park, said eviction notices have not yet arrived, but are expected.

The owners did not attend Thursday’s council meeting and have not commented on the situation.

Near the end of the discussion, a surprise to Rooke and others, Dave Fetzer, of Heritage Realty Group, told the council and approximately 50 Hilltop residents and supporters that he spoke to two investors in the last 10 days who may want to purchase the site, so it can remain a mobile home park.

Fetzer said he needs 60 to 90 days to present an offer.

“I’ve been following this for a long time,” he said, adding that there’s nothing wrong with a nice mobile home park.

The council struggled to make a decision on allowing the rezoning request to proceed, trying to avoid tie votes, which would automatically fail. The options were to table the request, deny it, or move it to the Planning Commission.

Koll said he was leery of Fetzer’s offer and expressed throughout the meeting — to the criticism of some residents and supporters — that the Mayeses should have the chance to state their case, and that it may be time to consider the zoning in that entire area, after decades as-is.

“This might not come back from Planning Commission as an R3,” he said. “But we deserve to look.”

Planner Mark Holdren said the entire review process could last six to nine months. Once the Planning Commission makes a recommendation, the Township Council still has the final, official vote on whether to approve the request. Regional review and a formal public hearing also are required.

Fryer hesitated to vote in favor of the final action, but said it still gives Rooke and Fetzer time to reach a deal, if possible. He said it’s “saddening” and “frustrating” to see people lose their homes and, earlier, expressed disappointment in Vencel’s presentation of a student housing development, in light of recent township debates over other student complexes.

“I do not think we are in the market for any more student housing in this area,” he said as construction continues on The Retreat on Waupelani Drive and The Villas at Happy Valley between Trout Road and Dreibelbis Street.

Many residents, their attorneys and other supporters asked the council to outright deny the request, to allow for affordable housing that officials say the county desperately needs.

“Don’t kid yourself,” said Robert Baillie, of Ferguson Township. “We’re not going to get more workforce housing by rezoning it to something else.”

Colby Woodring, a Housing Transitions Inc. case manager, said she and colleagues are still trying to find new homes for five families displaced in the Hotel Do De fire in Bellefonte last September. She said 40 to 50 families remain at the Penn State Mobile Home Park in Patton Township, also slated for closure this year.

“So trying to find affordable housing for workforce folks in our county is very difficult,” she said. “We don’t need student housing. We need workforce housing.”

Vencel noted several times that the R3 district allows mobile homes but, when asked, also said keeping mobile homes on the property is not part of the company’s current concept plan. He said Trinitas would abide by an affordable housing ordinance currently under review by the township.

Andrew Budziak, a park resident, said he agreed with the council that Vencel’s presentation assumed the property would be rezoned, and that he was pleased with members’ reaction.

“There is so much in the dark and unclear about what is going on,” he said. “Except for the fact that people are losing their homes, and the hardships it’s creating for people.”