The debate over the proposed development, the Cottages at State College, boiled over Thursday at the State College Borough Water Authority’s monthly meeting.
The authority, which maintains about 16,000 metered services and 270 miles of water mains in the borough and parts of Benner, College, Harris, Halfmoon, Patton and Ferguson townships, is charged with providing the Centre Region with “an excellent supply of potable water at the lowest possible cost and to provide top-quality service to our customers.”
About 70 local residents attended the SCBWA’s meeting. About 20 spoke and were uniform in their request that the authority advise Ferguson Township supervisors to block Toll Brothers from developing 32 acres of land at the intersection of Blue Course Drive and West Whitehall Road. Residents say they are concerned about the effect stormwater runoff could have on the nearby Harter-Thomas wellfield, which supplies underground drinking water to the SCBWA.
The authority, however, acts in an advisory role and cannot pull the plug on development plans.
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The Toll Brothers development has been under fire for months, particularly after Ferguson Township approved a tentative Planned Residential Development plan by a 3-1 vote in March. Supervisor Janet Whitaker voted against the motion.
Whitaker attended Thursday’s meeting and asked how concerned the authority was over the Toll Brothers plan.
“From one board member to other board members, for my own voting when we do a final vote coming up, I need you as the water authority board, the people that deal with water, I need more a quantitative answer to all of this,” Whitaker said.
She asked the SCBWA to rank on a scale of one to 10, with one being no threat, how concerned the authority is over the development’s possible threat to the water.
Dave Yoxtheimer, a scientist who consults for the SCBWA, said the authority submitted a source water protection program eight years ago to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which responded with a source water assessment.
“They looked at potential sources of contamination for each of the authority’s wellfields and ranked the potential sources of contamination,” Yoxtheimer said. “The No. 1 potential source of contamination that could harm the water authority’s wellfields was transportation corridors. ...The No. 2 potential source was residential and commercial development.”
Residents tried to get a more firm answer from the authority over its concerns but appeared to grow more agitated when board member Gary Hoover repeatedly said that it’s not the board’s decision to make.
“Have any of the comments here impacted or changed your line of thought?” one local resident asked. “I’ve been sitting here watching your faces, and I just see (an attitude) of let’s just get this over with.”
Several board members collectively said they were the wrong group to address concerns.
“Do you realize that you’re being used and that the silence of these suggesting bodies are used as support for something,” local resident Joe Cusumano said. “What happens is we go to the township supervisors, (and) they make zoning decisions while freely admitting they don’t know anything about the hydrology. What then happens is buck-passing, massive buck-passing.”
Residents noted that the authority’s position in October on the development was “very concerned.”
“We were much more concerned two months ago than we are now,” SCBWA Vice Chairman Jeffrey Kern said. “Last meeting we had a long discussion about this development, and our engineering people and our staff are diligently working with the township and Toll Brothers to allay any of those fears. We feel much less concerned about this development than we did.”
He then acknowledged his concern that development continues to spread.
“This particular development will be done as best as it can be done,” Kern said. “We’ve done a lot more work to make it better than it was. The impact on our water is probably minimal if any at all ... but I don’t know what the tipping point is when we develop over and over again on our watershed.”
The meeting followed a Ferguson Township meeting Monday, in which resident Pam Steckler brought a petition with 418 signatures from residents across the Centre Region to request a rezoning of the parcels to house the development from R-4 to their original RA designation, saying the tentative plan was approved without full knowledge of its effect on local water supplies.
Another petition, started by Katherine Watt on change.org two weeks ago, has garnered about 1,900 supporters in support of denying the development.