by Geoff Rushton
Toll Brothers has informed Penn State of its interest in purchasing an alternative site to build a proposed luxury student housing development, instead of the planned site off Whitehall Road in Ferguson Township where concerns have been raised about potential effects on source water.
On Oct. 31, the developer sent a letter of intent expressing interest in buying a 19-acre parcel on West College Avenue in front of the Penn State Blue Course, according to the Nittany Valley Water Coalition, the group that has been trying to negotiate a different Penn State-owned site for the development. Whether that deal will happen, though, remains to be seen.
“Toll Brothers only recently expressed a very preliminary interest, through an unsigned letter of intent, in an alternate site — but the University has not been provided any analyses or other information that would be required as part of our evaluation of any sales agreement,” Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said. “However, the new site is immediately adjacent to Penn State’s Blue golf course and in a strategic corridor for future potential development.”
A Toll Brothers representative had not yet answered a request for comment as of early Wednesday evening.
The developer has had a contract with the university since 2012 to purchase land near the intersection of Whitehall Road and Blue Course Drive, where it intended to build a 264-unit development called The Cottages. But after land development plans were approved by Ferguson Township supervisors in 2015, a group of neighboring landowners sued on the grounds that the approval was an error of law and that it violated the state’s Environmental Rights Amendment.
The residents and their supporters formed the Nittany Valley Water Coalition and they have been vocal about concerns that stormwater and construction runoff would harm Slab Cabin Run and the nearby Harter-Thomas well fields, the source of drinking water for the majority of homes served by the State College Borough Water Authority, which provides water to the Centre Region.
Toll Brothers and Penn State, which has no involvement in the development beyond the planned land sale, said the site has undergone extensive testing and that the development plans meet or exceed local and state stormwater management regulations.
That court case came to an end last week when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied a petition by the neighboring landowners to hear an appeal. But as the lawsuit was proceeding, and as some residents camped out on the site in protest, coalition members had ongoing talks with Toll Brothers and Penn State representatives about potential alternative sites.
Coalition members met on Tuesday with Richard Keyser, Toll Brothers’ vice president of apartment living, who told them a formal letter of interest in the West College Avenue site, which is also in Ferguson Township, had been sent to the university. The developer had been for the past two months conducting feasibility studies of the site for a mixed-use development with student housing and commercial space.
In prior meetings, Toll Brothers expressed interest in the site because of it proximity to campus, downtown and amenities.
“Mr. Keyser emphasized that Toll Brothers wants to work with the community and hopes to engage in the development process and land sale with the cooperation of Ferguson Township and Penn State as quickly as possible,” NVWC members said in a news release.
“There is also strong community support for this property as an alternative site for the planned development,” the release stated. “The community supports Toll Brothers building student housing on [West] College, not on Whitehall [Road] upslope of Slab Cabin Run and the Thomas-Harter wells.”
NVWC, however, was skeptical that Penn State would move forward with the sale of the alternative site. In a follow-up meeting with a university representative, coalition members were told of “a poorly defined ‘process that must be followed,’ that could delay or thwart any desired ‘land swap’…,” according to the NVWC release. They also said they had previously been told in writing that Penn State has no plans for the West College Avenue property.
Coalition members added that they were informed of the Penn State Board of Trustees Real Estate Task Force, an advisory group formed earlier this year to provide guidance on capital project investments and use of real estate.
NVWC claimed the university is stalling.
“It appears that Penn State’s objective is to run out the clock forcing Toll Brothers to take possession of the land on Whitehall via the existing sales agreement, which is due to close in the next few week,” the NVWC release stated.
Powers said the Real Estate Task Force “is not operationally involved in any specific real estate decision.” She added that not nearly enough information has been shared for the university to make a decision.
“In a meeting yesterday, there was preliminary conversation with some information sharing, but not nearly enough detail for any decision. There have been no written feasibility studies, zoning inquiries/recommendations, or overall analysis of the site presented to Penn State,” Powers said. “At this point in time, Penn State is waiting for more information from Toll Brothers in order to begin its evaluation process. It is therefore premature to comment further at this time.”
She also said that the university and Toll Brothers still have a binding sales agreement and that Penn State has not received any notice of retraction from the developer.