In the early 2000s, development sprouted up quickly in Patton Township, and residents worried that construction would gobble up all the community’s green places. So they did something about it.
Residents helped get a referendum on the ballot in 2001 and voted in convincing numbers to borrow $2.5 million to preserve open space. The township used the money to buy more than 400 acres of the Haugh family farm along Circleville Road.
Today, depending on the weather, those same residents can bicycle or cross-country ski across acres of farmland, woodlands and wetlands. They can go hunting or bird-watching. They can even grow their own gardens in small plots of land.
The loan used to purchase the land is set to be paid off this year, and with proof the project can be successful here, township officials are asking whether its time to start again.
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The township has posted a short survey to its website meant to gauge whether residents would support a similar project in the future.
“We’re really looking to see what the electorate wants to do,” said township Manager Doug Erickson.
It’s just the first step in what could be a long process to put another referendum question on the ballot and identify land to purchase and preserve. But it’s an idea township officials have been kicking around for some time.
“We’ve actually been talking about this for a couple of years,” Erickson said. “It’s been a potential project in the capital improvement plan for at least two years. What’s spurring it at this time is we are going to retire the debt we have on the (current project).”
In 2001, voters authorized Patton to borrow $2.5 million to purchase the Haugh open space. The township got a deal at the time when the Haugh family sold land valued at about $9 million for significantly less than it was worth.
“The Haughs made a generous gift to the township,” Erickson previously said.
To fund the debt, residents agreed to take on a 1 mill property tax increase. Low interest rates and growth in the township made it possible to pay the loan in 11 1/2 years instead of the 20 years originally planned.
As the township’s tax base continued to grow, 1 mill brought in more money. Township officials were able to incrementally reduce the tax hit starting in 2007 and continuing though this year, when it was eliminated entirely.
The Haughs, meanwhile, set aside $300,000 from the sale proceeds and created an endowment through the Centre Foundation. The township also set aside about $250,000. Between those funds, and 250 acres of farmland the township leases to farmers, no taxpayer money goes into maintenance on the tract, Erickson said.
“Any activity you see us doing, we’re not spending tax dollars on the property anymore,” he said.
With the loan for the Haugh open space expiring this year, the township faces a familiar process, but perhaps different circumstances, in asking residents whether they want to move forward with a new project.
Erickson said the effort in 2001 sparked from community concerns about a series of new developments in the township.
“People were seeing a lot of land being gobbled up,” he said.
Jeff Hermann, now a member of the township Planning Commission, was one resident who got involved, serving as chairman of the open space task force that helped develop the project.
“I think that was something that was on a lot of people’s minds,” he said. “It was a real boom time for the township. There were lots and lots of development plans. At the time, the fear was we’d start filling in, one housing development after another — we’d be solid housing.”
Hermann said there are still township residents who are concerned with the issue. According to the township’s questionnaire, some residents have urged Patton to extend the open space program, take out another loan and buy additional property.
This time around, the economy may be a factor, Hermann said. He pointed to another referendum, one for the State College Area High School project that township residents will soon face. If approved by Centre Region voters, the project would bring higher tax bills.
“There are a number of tax issues,” he said.
But Hermann said the first open space project brought plenty of benefits, including recreational opportunities for residents and preservation of the township’s character.
“It’s a gem,” he said.
Erickson said the current survey had about 185 responses by late last week. It will remain open until April 20.
Depending on the results, the township could form another open space task force, charged with looking at available property and determining which owners would be willing to enter negotiations with the township.
“The playbook is there for us,” Erickson said.