Strong, broad and politically non-partisan Centre County opposition exists against the proposed Toll Brothers luxury student apartment complex, The Cottages, along Whitehall Road, uphill from Slab Cabin Run and the Thomas-Harter well fields that provide water to about 75,000 State College Borough Water Authority customers. Landowner PSU plans to sell the 44 acres of land for this development to Toll Brothers.
In 2015, citizens mobilized against the project, which received “tentative” Ferguson Township approval in March of that year. On Nov. 3, 2015, Ferguson Township voters elected new supervisors; each ran on a platform of water and farmland protection. On Nov. 16, before the new supervisors were sworn in, outgoing supervisors granted the project “final” approval over vocal community objections. This decision formed the basis for a citizens’ land-use appeal by 15 homeowners and farmers, filed in Centre County court, to stop the development, and Nittany Valley Water Coalition was formed.
In July 2016, Court of Common Pleas Judge Jonathan Grine ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, against Toll Brothers and Ferguson Township, finding the township approval was an “attempted end-run” around zoning codes intended to protect the land and water. Toll Brothers appealed Grine’s decision to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.
In May 2017, the Commonwealth Court overturned Judge Grine’s decision, based on the timeliness of the land use appeal — not the merits — thus clearing the way for Penn State to complete the land sale to Toll Brothers and knock over the first domino in developing the Slab Cabin Run watershed from Whitehall Road to Shingletown Road and beyond. The development’s stormwater basins remain illegally on 5.5 acres of rural agricultural zoned land.
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When Judge Grine’s ruling was overturned, NVWC immediately launched a citizen encampment, occupying the site to persuade Penn State to halt the land sale. NVWC has distributed 1,000 yard signs, raised more than $40,000, and generated thousands of petition signatures and more than 60 letters to the editor in two years of community advocacy. We have been very clear about several things: We have no objection to student housing, the right of PSU to sell its land or the right of Toll Brothers to establish a presence in the Centre Region. We simply do not want student housing of this type, with 1,000 vehicles and acres of impervious surface, on land overlying our watershed in an age of climate change and deluge rain events, where there is any uncertainty about the safety of our water.
Thus, on behalf of Centre Region citizens, NVWC has appealed the case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Penn State administrators, some Ferguson Township supervisors and a few water authority board members have been asserting that the development plans for the Toll Brothers’ student housing complex and the Whitehall Road active sports park present no risk to public water supplies, but no credible evidence has been provided to support this assertion.
When pressed, these officials have admitted, however, that there are no studies specifically assessing the risks posed to the wells. Significantly, other members of the water authority share citizen concerns about safety risks. They’ve expressed their concerns mostly in private conversations with NVWC representatives, but lately in public forums as well.
Available hydrogeology studies show complex and interconnected karst subsurface structures and water flows in the Nittany Valley. Fractures in the bedrock under the development site, including a fracture trace/sinkhole at the location of the stormwater basins, can send stormwater runoff from the tributary swale into Slab Cabin Run and subsurface flows, and then into our public wells. The fact that other development exists on this type of geology in the region is no reason to build more, especially so close to our wells. Though the development plan met requirements of Ferguson Township ordinances at the time of approval, it would no longer satisfy the Stormwater Management Ordinance approved in 2016.
From the late 1960s to 2004, our community had a fairly strong de facto precautionary principle in place to protect public water supplies: Ferguson Township Rural Agricultural zoning, alongside a series of Centre Region comprehensive plans, designated this important watershed farmland as an “Agricultural Security Area” outside the Regional Growth Boundary.
In 2004, however, Ferguson Township supervisors ignored a cacophony of warnings from regional land use planners and rezoned this rural agricultural land to high density multifamily housing at Penn State’s request.
PSU’s David Gray stated in his recent CDT op-ed that “the university is not involved in the proposed housing development.” However, in 2011 PSU produced a multi-page brochure to market this land to developers for student housing (files obtained by Right-to-Know filing). If Penn State can negotiate a land sale to Toll Brothers, it can come back to the table for a dialogue on how to sustain and honor the community it affects so greatly. We want Penn State and Toll Brothers to agree to an alternate location for The Cottages. Just upslope of the Thomas-Harter wells and Slab Cabin Run is not the place for this massive development. Penn State owns thousands of acres in the region and this solution is entirely possible if they and Toll Brothers have the will to listen to our community.
Terry Melton and Kelli Hoover submitted this op-ed on behalf of the Nittany Valley Water Coalition.