Penn State removes ‘illegal encampment’ from Toll Brothers site

Penn State OPP tears down encampment on Toll Brothers site and Ferguson Township police evicts protesters

The Nittany Valley Water Coalition protested on the Toll Brothers student housing development site on Whitehall Road for 124 days before being evicted in October 2017.
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The Nittany Valley Water Coalition protested on the Toll Brothers student housing development site on Whitehall Road for 124 days before being evicted in October 2017.

Protesters have been occupying the Toll Brothers site since June 3. On Wednesday, Penn State evicted them.

At about 9:15 a.m., Penn State’s Zack Moore, vice president for government and community relations, who declined to comment, and Kurt Kissinger, associate vice president for finance and business; Office of Physical Plant workers; and Ferguson Township police showed up at the Whitehall Road property.

OPP brought two large trucks and removed a tent, canopies, a table and other items.

Police officers were on-site to make sure the Nittany Valley Water Coalition didn’t re-establish the protest. No arrests were made.

“All we’re simply asking is everybody to stay off the property,” said Ferguson Township police Sgt. Ryan Hendrick.

For 124 days, members of the water coalition had a presence at the site — where Toll Brothers is slated to build The Cottages at State College — to protest the student housing development, citing concerns about potential impacts to water quality.

The university posted “no trespassing” signs on the property on July 20. Last week, Penn State officials gave protesters “final notice” to vacate.

“Despite the ample notification to comply with both university policy and safety regulations, members of the Nittany Valley Water Coalition were willfully ignoring the request,” university spokeswoman Lisa Powers said in an email Wednesday. “Penn State is exercising its rights under the law as property owner to remove the illegal encampment from the site.”

The university is also considering a seasonal lease to a local farmer while the issues surrounding the property are resolved, Powers said last week.

The water coalition has additional items and signs on the adjacent property, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which weren’t seized.

Kelli Hoover, a water coalition member and Ferguson Township resident, said she spoke to Charima Young, Penn State’s director of local government and community relations, by phone at about 8:15 a.m. Wednesday.

Young didn’t mention that Penn State and the police would be at the site, Hoover said.

“I feel betrayed,” said Hoover, who’s also a professor of entomology at the university.

Anyone who chooses to violate the law needs to consider the legal consequences, Young said in an email.

“I was aware of the removal of (the) encampment today, and my assumption from prior warnings they received is that many individuals already made their choice to obey the law or not to obey the law,” she said.

David Stone, of State College, was at the site when the police and Penn State OPP arrived. He’s frequently there, and has been since the beginning — talking to those who stop by to ask what’s going on and generally holding down the fort, so to speak.

He said he and other protesters were on adjacent property Tuesday night because they expected the university and police any day, and they cooperated when the eviction happened.

It’s “silly” that the university evicted the protesters at this point, Stone said.

“It makes our lives a lot harder,” he said, “but we’ll be here.”

Hoover said she doesn’t think anybody wants to go anywhere.

The water coalition will likely talk about next steps at its regular meeting Friday, she said.

“We do have tools available to preserve this watershed — things that could have been used prior to this bad sale decision that I hope that we still get the chance to use. The only barrier to that right now is Penn State,” said Ferguson Township Supervisor Laura Dininni, who opposed the development as a citizen before being elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2015.

The water coalition has been in talks with university officials and Toll Brothers representative Charles Elliott about potential alternative sites for The Cottages at State College.

Toll Brothers is currently in a 60-day evaluation period for an alternative site it’s potentially interested in on West College Avenue.

Members of the water coalition have praised Toll Brothers for being open to discussion and doing its due diligence.

Another meeting with Penn State, Toll Brothers and the water coalition is in the planning stages — which was the topic of Hoover and Young’s phone conversation Wednesday.

“We hope to have a productive and respectful discussion in the near future,” Young said.

A lawsuit filed by residents against Ferguson Township is also making its way through the courts. They’re waiting to see whether the state Supreme Court will hear their case.

Sarah Rafacz: 814-231-4619, @SarahRafacz