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Ferguson Township development plan approved despite concerns about tree loss

What you should know about the Pine Hall Traditional Town Development

A new mixed-use housing and retail development is under consideration in Ferguson Township, but there are concerns about its environmental impact. Supervisors are looking at a proposal for The Pine Hall Traditional Town Development.
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A new mixed-use housing and retail development is under consideration in Ferguson Township, but there are concerns about its environmental impact. Supervisors are looking at a proposal for The Pine Hall Traditional Town Development.

Despite public opposition, the Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors unanimously voted Monday to approve the Pine Hall Traditional Town Development — a project with long-term consequences, community members say.

Before taking a vote, the board heard public comment from more than 20 Centre County residents, starting with an Aug. 5 public hearing and continuing Monday night. While some thanked the board for their work, the majority of attendees asked that development be postponed until “a modest goal” can be reached in order to protect Pine Hall forest’s ecosystem.

Pine Hall forest is located on two parcels of land between Blue Course Drive and Old Gatesburg Road. The project has been in the works for 10 years, said Peter Crowley, LandDesign land designer. Plans for the Pine Hall TTD include commercial and residential housing areas. The commercial area includes seven retail and food services buildings, five mixed-use buildings that include a cinema, grocery store, office space and hotel.

While some residents said they’re not against the project as a whole, they raised concerns with the removal of 55 out of 65 acres of forest — about 90% of Pine Hall forest. During the Aug. 5 hearing, residents asked Pine Hall TTD representatives to maintain at least 40% of existing trees before moving forward with development plans.

Before Monday’s meeting, the Nittany Valley Environmental Coalition distributed a letter that asked the supervisors to postpone project approval. The letter cited data collected in a community-wide survey that reported that 90% of residents want the township to expand and approve its environmentally sensitive areas. In the survey, 89% of residents asked that the township prioritize forest and open space.

Residents questioned the board’s authority, requesting that its members tell developers to maintain the existing vegetation instead of replanting street trees that will not provide the same ecosystem services as mature trees.

Township solicitor Joseph Green said that if a landowner proposes to develop on privately-owned property and the plan meets all ordinances, then the board of supervisors is required to approve the project.

Rob DeMayo and his 10-year-old daughter Bailey asked that the board not teach Ferguson Township’s youngest residents lessons of destruction. Instead, they requested the board listen to the values of its community members and work to maintain the forest.

While most comments addressed the forest’s environmental benefits, Centre County Housing and Land Trust Executive Director Missy Schoonover thanked the board for their work, saying that Pine Hall TTD will provide much-needed affordable housing for county families.

Having been involved with the project since its inception, Supervisor Steve Miller said the planning stages, which began in 2009, were inclusive and open to the public.

“To make major changes right now is not in our ability,” Miller said.

Feeling “powerless” and “handcuffed” by state regulations and a lack of time, Supervisor Laura Dininni encouraged residents to vocalize their concerns, so public opinion can be considered when drafting future zoning regulations and ordinances.

Despite her disappointment in parts of the plan, Dininni made a motion to approve the Pine Hall TTD for fear of developers pulling out altogether.

“If you’re asking us to deny this plan because you think it will provide an opportunity to not lose those trees, I’m sorry but your problem ... should be directed to the state,” she said.

Moving forward after approval, developers said they will continue to work with township staff and residents to make sure all parties are satisfied with the project.

Marley Parish reports on local government for the Centre Daily Times. She grew up in Slippery Rock and graduated from Allegheny College.
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