Penn State, Toll Brothers close on Whitehall Road property

Penn State and Toll Brothers closed on the Whitehall Road property Friday.
Penn State and Toll Brothers closed on the Whitehall Road property Friday. psheehan@centredaily.com

Penn State and Toll Brothers closed on the sales agreement for the Whitehall Road property on Friday.

The parties entered into a sales agreement in 2012 for $13.5 million.

“The agreement is the culmination of a complex process of requirements and approvals — including meeting or exceeding numerous water, environmental, zoning and traffic regulations — that have involved multiple entities over many years, including the township, state, federal government, State College Borough Water Authority and the university board of trustees,” Penn State said in an emailed statement.

Toll Brothers, a Horsham-based developer, is slated to build a luxury student housing complex, The Cottages at State College, on about 45 acres of farmland in Ferguson Township. It was part of a 565-acre parcel owned by the university.

The development received final approval from the Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors two years ago, but it’s been challenged in court and protested by community members. The site was occupied for 124 days over the summer.

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.

The Nittany Valley Water Coalition — which is in the process of incorporating as a nonprofit under the name Nittany Valley Environmental Coalition — has been leading the charge to block the development.

The group contends that sourcewater will be at risk if the Whitehall land is developed. Toll Brothers and Penn State have said that the risks have been mitigated.

Penn State said the closing of the sales agreement is a “critical step” toward creating the 100-acre Whitehall Road Regional Park adjacent to The Cottages. Toll Brothers will provide infrastructure support, including a sewage pumping station, to help meet the needs of the park.

“We are a great institute,” David Hughes, a Penn State associate professor and coalition member, said in an email. “We could have been better than this. I believe we can be better than this and will work toward that.”

The coalition had been in talks in the past few months with Toll Brothers and Penn State, who owns the property, to try to convince both entities that another site would be better suited for development. The coalition proposed seven alternative Penn State-owned sites, and Toll Brothers spent two months evaluating them — finally sending a letter of intent to Penn State regarding a 19-acre parcel along West College Avenue.

Penn State said on Thursday that it will not sell Toll Brothers that site — as it deemed the property as “strategically important to the long-range health and growth of the university.”

Said the university: “Although Penn State has no immediate plans for the parcel, it would be irresponsible of the university to enter into negotiations for the West College Avenue property without an evaluation of the best use for the property and related impacts.”

On Wednesday, Toll Brothers said in a statement that it is bound by and would meet its contractual obligations for the Whitehall site.

Earlier this week, the coalition announced its intention to sue Penn State if the land sale were finalized. But the lawsuit would be about much more than just this one land sale. The coalition hopes, if it comes to it, that through the lawsuit the courts will be able to answer one question definitively: Is Penn State public or private for the purpose of real estate transactions?

Coalition Vice President Katherine Watt said in an email that there’s a silver lining to the land sale — the “self-dealing is so blatant, and the profiteering math so straightforward, that the blinders many locals have worn for the last couple of decades are finally coming off. It’s easier to see Penn State for what it is: a tax-exempt, publicly-subsidized, privately-governed for-profit corporation.”

She said the coalition is moving rapidly to collect evidence to reform Penn State in 2018 and beyond, starting with the lawsuit.

Sarah Rafacz: 814-231-4619, @SarahRafacz