Penn State

Penn State is ‘investigating ways’ to conserve 365 acres of its land near Toll Brothers site

Penn State is partnering with ClearWater Conservancy to conserve its Musser Gap property, which is 365 acres, in Ferguson Township.
Penn State is partnering with ClearWater Conservancy to conserve its Musser Gap property, which is 365 acres, in Ferguson Township. Centre Daily Times, file

Penn State announced Tuesday that it is “investigating ways to conserve” 365 acres of land that it owns between Whitehall Road and Rothrock State Forest at Musser Gap in Ferguson Township.

“Our vision for this area is to not only help protect the local water supply, plant and animal species, but also make it a place where people can enjoy nature, learn about the environment and be inspired,” Penn State President Eric Barron said in a press release.

According to the release, Penn State is partnering with ClearWater Conservancy on the effort.

ClearWater — a local nonprofit that’s mission is to conserve and restore natural resources in central Pa. — will work with the community and gather input from local residents, the university release said.

The conservancy last year reached the $2.75 million fundraising goal for its Slab Cabin Run Initiative to permanently conserve a little more than 300 acres of agricultural land — the Meyer Dairy property and the Everhart Farm.

Deb Nardone, executive director of the conservancy, said in a phone interview Wednesday that this effort is true to the “spirit” and “heart” of ClearWater’s work.

She said the nonprofit is “really excited” about helping Penn State “transform” this destination.

ClearWater will be leading community engagement sessions and surveying stakeholders, Nardone said.

The first community forum is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. on Jan. 31 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County, 780 Waupelani Drive, State College.

David Gray, senior vice president for finance and business at Penn State, said in the release that the university will be careful and deliberate in its approach to this process.

“We will consult extensively with the local community and government as we consider passive use options that help protect the overall environment, including the water supply, while advancing the university’s core missions of education, research and outreach,” he said.

According to the press release, a team of Penn State students spent fall semester studying the property as part of a landscape architecture course.

Eliza Pennypacker, professor and head of landscape architecture, said students, led and mentored by faculty, examined various aspects of the MG2V property, including the biophysical, geological, hydrological, ecological, agricultural and historic characteristics of the land.

Another class will continue the work during spring semester, expanding the project by working with ClearWater, Pennypacker said. Using information gathered in the fall class and stakeholder feedback, the students will then come up with preliminary ideas for possible future uses for the land.

The property borders on Rothrock State Forest to the south and the proposed Whitehall Road Regional Park to the north.

All 365 acres of the Musser Gap property are outside of the regional growth boundary and are zoned rural agricultural, Nardone said.

According to a Centre Regional Planning Agency fact sheet: “By directing growth to areas with existing development and infrastructure, the land outside the boundary can be utilized for agricultural purposes or preserved as natural areas and open space. The land inside the boundary is more attractive to developers since it is often zoned for higher density development.”

The Musser Gap property also neighbors the Toll Brothers’ The Cottages at State College development site, which was brought into the regional growth boundary and rezoned multifamily residential in 1982 (15 acres) and 2004 (about 26 acres). Another several acres of the site are still zoned rural agricultural, and are planned to be used for a stormwater detention basin.

Penn State and Toll Brothers, a Horsham-based developer, closed on a $13.5 million sales agreement for about 45 acres of university-owned farmland along Whitehall Road in December 2017. Toll Brothers is building a luxury student housing complex.

The development received final approval from the Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors three years ago, but it’s been challenged in court and protested by community members. The site was occupied for 124 days in summer 2017.

The Nittany Valley Water Coalition — which is now known as the Nittany Valley Environmental Coalition — had led the charge to block the development.

The group contended 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.

The 45 acres sold to Toll Brothers was part of a 565-acre parcel owned by Penn State.