Locals occupy Toll Brothers site

Boya Xiong, right, and Amanda Ramcharan hand out pamphlets describing the Toll Brothers development Saturday along Whitehall Road in Ferguson Township.
Boya Xiong, right, and Amanda Ramcharan hand out pamphlets describing the Toll Brothers development Saturday along Whitehall Road in Ferguson Township. psheehan@centredaily.com

Crime scene tape lined Whitehall Road along the edge of the property where the Toll Brothers’ student housing development is set to be built.

On Saturday, locals began occupying the site. They put up signs and handed out flyers to passing cars. By mid-morning, eight tents were set up and 30 people had gathered.

“We’re hoping that we can stay here until Penn State changes their mind and decides not to sell this land to Toll Brothers and instead put it into either a conservation easement or a living lab where we can do research and education,” Kelli Hoover, of Pine Grove Mills, said.

Hoover is a professor of entomology at Penn State and one of the 15 residents who filed suit against Ferguson Township for the Board of Supervisors’ November 2015 approval of the Toll Brothers’ Cottages at State College development.

Residents are concerned about the potential impacts of the development on the nearby Harter-Thomas Wellfields, which supply State College with the majority of its drinking water.

Last month, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania vacated a July 2016 decision by county Judge Jonathan D. Grine that the supervisors had “committed an error of law” in approving the Toll Brothers’ final planned residential development plan.

Residents plan to appeal the Commonwealth Court’s decision to the state Supreme Court.

It was at the meeting of the Nittany Valley Water Coalition when the members voted to appeal the decision that they also decided it was time to start occupying the site, Hoover said.

“I have a feeling this would build rather than diminish over time,” she said.

Pam Steckler, a resident of Ferguson Township for more than 35 years, was helping to put up a long cloth sign that read “We are (waiting for) Penn State (to join the community).”

Penn State entered into a binding agreement of sale in 2012 based on the legal permitted use of the land under the township’s ordinances, university spokeswoman Lisa Powers said in an email.

“As the prospective seller of the property, Penn State is not involved in the environmental, permitting and regulatory reviews for approving, modifying or rejecting the Toll Brothers’ housing development plan,” Powers said. “These matters are properly under the control of local government and water quality authorities. It is important to note these agencies adhere to strict water quality laws and have completed their environmental reviews.”

The region is lucky to have such clean water, Steckler said, adding that it’s the most precious resource.

“Why should we risk that?” she said.

She said she’s excited that people are willing to put in the time and energy to camp out at the site.

“We’re still in the fight,” she said.

David Hughes, an associate professor of entomology and biology at Penn State, got involved with the Nittany Valley Water Coalition through Hoover.

He’s against the Toll Brothers development being built, he said, but beyond that he has a vision for what the hundreds of acres that Penn State owns along Whitehall Road could become.

His idea is to create a living lab.

“We need more science to understand what is the effect of global climate change on our agriculture, and this will be a great place to study it,” Hughes said.

Toll Brothers officials have not yet responded to requests for comment.

Ferguson Township Manager David Pribulka declined comment.

Sarah Rafacz: 814-231-4619, @SarahRafacz