Development, budget among top issues

The controversial Cottages at State College development plan, approved unanimously by the Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors in November, was one of the top local news stories in 2015.
The controversial Cottages at State College development plan, approved unanimously by the Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors in November, was one of the top local news stories in 2015. Centre Daily Times, file

For the Centre Region and the municipalities therein, 2015 marked a year of development.

Whether or not that development is a good thing remains in the opinions of the residents and the future of the region.

Carrying over from Planning Commission discussions in 2014, the State College Borough Council prolonged holding a final vote on the collegiate housing overlay amendment. The overlay, in part proposed by the former owner of Kildare’s Irish Pub, sought to motivate developers to create better designs and allowed flexibility in building height, parking requirements and floor area ratios.

A public hearing in April saw a strong residential lean against the overlay, with many residents questioning the need for more student housing. Residents also voiced their concerns about increased traffic in the area.

A decision on the overlay finally came in July with a 6-1 vote in favor of the amendment. While residents again voiced their opposition to the amendment, President Jim Rosenberger said the proposal puts density at the border of town and gown where it should be.

Things remained quiet regarding the overlay until December, when CA Ventures proposed the RISE — a 12-story, 182-unit commercial and residential development that would overtake Kildare’s and the neighboring Colony Apartments. Council unanimously approved the conditional use permit for the RISE on Dec. 21.

Meanwhile, in Ferguson Township, residents railed against a development they said threatened the very ecology of the region.

Opposition against the Cottages at State College, a 268-unit housing project by Toll Brothers slated to take in more than 1,000 occupants, ramped up in May. Residents were wary about the development’s proximity to the Harter-Thomas wellfields, which provides drinking water to the State College Borough Water Authority.

Submission deadlines for a final plan from the developer continued to be pushed back until November, when a plan was unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors to the boos and cries of “shame” from the residents in attendance.

PennTerra Engineering President John Sepp told the board the plan was “one of the cleanest plans I’ve ever presented to the Board of Supervisors for a job this size.”

But the issue of the Cottages will continue into the new year, as group calling itself the Nittany Valley Water Coalition filed suit on Dec. 15 against the township supervisors, seeking to overturn the decision to approve the development plan. The issue is also likely to be revisited by the incoming supervisors in January.

Residents in College Township wondered “what stinks?” in March when an “unbearable” odor was found emanating from the nearby University Area Joint Authority water treatment facility.

The UAJA had kicked off an odor-control study in August 2014, collecting air samples and inviting residents to submit their own off-site odor observations. UAJA Executive Director Cory Miller cited maintenance at the compost building as the cause of the recent changes in odor.

In May, the UAJA released an interim report detailing its current findings into the study, saying changes are being made around the facility but permanent solutions likely won’t be seen until 2016.

“We’ve made an awful lot of operational changes to various processes here, and it seems to be making a significant difference, “ Miller said. “We still have some other things we have to work on, but I think we’re making great progress on those changes before the final report is done.”

Regionally, future cyclists should find travel from one end of the Centre Region to the other a bit easier thanks to the Centre Region bicycle plan, which frames the paths and connections throughout the community.

Creation of the plan was sparked by the League of American Bicyclists, which named the State College region as a bronze-level bicycling area, Centre Region Planning Agency senior transportation planner Trish Meek said. As part of the award, the league provided feedback to the region that recommended the development of a comprehensive regional bike program.

After about a year of collecting input from municipal officials and cyclists themselves, a plan was presented to the Centre Region Council of Governments, who unanimously gave their support. The plan now identifies critical gaps in the regional bike plan and seeks to fill the gaps with logical connections while increasing the recognition that bikes are a legitimate form of transportation.

For Centre County itself, budget woes have put the crunch on some county-provided services and threatens to throw the county deeper into debt.

In August, while the state budget was still less than two months late, county commissioners assured residents that the county could weather the lack of state funding. Commissioners cited repeatedly that the county would be financed through December if the budget impasse lasted that long.

Now, as the sixth month of the budget impasse comes to a close, Centre County reserves are running out. The county Youth Service Bureau reported at the beginning of December that surrounding counties are unable to pay providers, putting pressure on the bureau.

A few weeks later, on Dec. 23, commissioners approved a $10 million Tax and Revenue Anticipation Note meant to carry the county financially through February. A tentative county budget was passed a week later.

“There is no good scenario here to adjust how we are going to continue without state funding,” Chairman Steve Dershem said. “I hope that we get back to some level of normalcy in our budgeting cycle, because it’s not fair to anybody.”

Jeremy Hartley: 814-231-4616, @JJHartleyNews