Dave Yoxtheimer, a hydro geologist at the Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, walks through a seemingly unremarkable tract of land. It’s near Blue Course Drive and Whitehall Road, in State College’s Ferguson Township. Although it seems barren to the naked eye, the land serves an important purpose for the town’s water.
“The aquifer beneath our feet here, in essence, drains and recharges two of the Water Authority’s well fields, which then basically becomes our drinking water,” Yoxtheimer said.
Right now, it is undeveloped agricultural land owned by Penn State. But it’s in the process of being sold, and the buyers want to make it a luxury student-housing complex called “The Cottages.” Those opposed to the sale are worried the new complex could contaminate the town’s drinking water.
“One concern here is that the soils do have the ability to absorb the water, and naturally filter it, and when you start doing earth moving and heavy construction, you sort of break-up that natural filter. Even the best intended engineering can’t overcome Mother Nature,” he said.
Yoxtheimer is acting as a consultant for the State College Water Authority. He compiled a report for the Ferguson Township Supervisors on the potential environmental impacts “The Cottages” would have on State College’s drinking water.
Yoxtheimer says as the land exists right now, the soil naturally helps remove contaminants before they reach the aquifer. That aquifer is State College’s primary source of drinking water.
Penn State acquired the property in 1999 when it was zoned only for agriculture. It’s been used to plant crops like alfalfa and corn. But in 2004, it was re-zoned for potential residential development. A company named the Toll Brothers now has an option to purchase the land from Penn State.
He said, “If Penn State wants to sell the land, they are certainly entitled to do that. Anybody is. The question in my mind, is this site suitable for a housing development, when we take into account that it is up gradient from one of the region’s major water supply well fields?”
But Yoxtheimer isn’t saying there will definitely be issues. “The housing complex could certainly go in here and we see no impact. But we don’t know that."
Laura Dinnini is a resident of Ferguson Township and is helping to organize the community effort to stop the housing development. “My thoughts on this project are that it should not go through. Period,” she said.
The Facebook page devoted to this cause, “Save State College’s Water Supply” has over 1,400 likes. The change.org petition has close to 2,000 signatures.
In an emailed statement, Penn State spokeswoman Jill Shockey said maintaining water quality is important to the university, but “The proposed use of this property falls within zoning regulations and is in the hands of Ferguson Township officials, local authorities and regulatory agencies."
The Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors passed a tentative plan for “The Cottages” in March of 2015, with only 1 supervisor voting “no.” But Steve Miller, a member of the board, says they’re reserving judgment until all the scientific evidence is presented.
“We’re very aware that it’s a major concern to a lot of citizens, and it’s a concern to us. We all drink the same water. So we want to be sure it’s done right and at the same time, we want to follow our own regulations and get the best possible development for the township,” Miller said.
But many community members are demanding the supervisors deny the housing development, and rezone the property.
Miller said, “The real question is could we rezone the land as agricultural? And that’s the second part of what we are being asked by a number of community members to do. That gets a lot trickier.”
That’s because if the property is rezoned back to agricultural, the value will drop from around $13.5 million to around a half a million dollars.
“So that it’s a down zoning, that would open us up to a lawsuit from Penn State and/or Toll Brothers for an unlawful taking, which is the loss of value to them. There might be cases where that type of action would be warranted. But we would really have to have solid scientific evidence for it in order to do something like that,” Miller said.
The Ferguson Township Supervisors say they plan to make their decision by August 5.