Their View: Penn State land sale risks water quality

Pictured is the land along Whitehall Road in Ferguson Township, on which Toll Bros. proposed development of student housing.
Pictured is the land along Whitehall Road in Ferguson Township, on which Toll Bros. proposed development of student housing. CDT photo

In 1999, Penn State purchased 26 acres of rural agricultural land on West Whitehall Road near its intersection with Blue Course Drive; the price was $99,307.

At Penn State’s request, the land was rezoned in 2004 — by the Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors — from rural agricultural to high-density residential. The Centre Regional Planning Commission and Centre Regional Planning Agency staff recommended against the rezoning, due to the site’s location over a 16.3-square-mile water recharge area that provides two-thirds of the daily high-quality drinking water piped to the people of six municipalities (State College and Ferguson, Patton, College, Harris and Benner townships).

Penn State now plans to sell the property to Toll Bros. to create, in combination with additional acreage, a 45-acre student housing development of 268 cottages, 1,093 beds and 1,200 parking spaces, within the Zone 2 wellhead protection area of the Harter and Thomas water wells.

The geology of the Harter and Thomas system is karst limestone, prone to sinkhole formation; sinkholes are already present on the property.

The $13.5 million sale is not final; it’s contingent on successful permitting. If completed, Penn State will make a $13.4 million profit from the sale. Anticipated student lease revenues for Toll Bros. exceed $9 million a year. There are powerful profit motives in play.

A key step in the permitting process is in the hands of the Ferguson Township supervisors, who approved a tentative planned residential development plan March 2, against the strong objections of township Planning and Zoning Director Maria Tranguch, who has since resigned. A final vote by the supervisors between now and an Aug. 5 review deadline will likely permit the project, against the further objections of more than 2,000 local petition signers.

State College Borough Water Authority, in its role as advisory body, has reviewed the plans with regard to system failures during and after construction that could compromise our public water. Statements from SCBWA board members indicate that concern is justified, although they insist the board is empowered only to make project mitigation suggestions, not to flatly oppose the project.

Water Authority Executive Director John Lichman has said the Toll Bros. property “represents only 1/49 of our total (Zone 2 water recharge) area. … I am hopeful that we worry about the other 48 areas just as much ... all the area in Zone 2 is critical.”

Explaining the potential risks and mitigation costs, Lichman said in a May 31 C-NET “Water Conservation and Sustainability” presentation that “if a major sinkhole opens, and it is a possibility, there’s no denying it,” drinking water damage control would involve emergency sinkhole repairs, diversion of water from other source wells and possible rate increases due to a need to pump from greater depth sources.

Other catastrophic events that could compromise water quality include chemical spills, breaching of stormwater detention pond liners, chronic neglect of holding ponds and extreme climate events such as flooding.

Although there is a baseline risk for the undeveloped land, in terms of recharge channel collapse and agricultural runoff, changes in surface stress and water flow rates increase those risks.

No matter how safely designed or meticulously managed, the Penn State/Toll Bros. development also sets an unacceptable precedent for the remaining acreage in the recharge area.

“Coming out of this we will have set the bar very high with a template for the future for other developments in Zone 2,” Lichman has said.

Clearly, he has no expectation that the municipal officials who control zoning will act decisively to protect drinking water recharge areas from development and other threats.

We believe that no high-density housing should be built over any portion of the 16.3-square-mile water recharge area of the Harter-Thomas well fields, including the Penn State/Toll Bros. parcel.

Penn State should take the opportunity to stop the sale of this land. By risking our public health, the university is breaching its own mission to “improve the well-being and health of individuals and communities through integrated programs of teaching, research and service.”

As citizens, we do not consent to putting our publicly owned water resources at increased risk.