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Penn State Says No To Proposed Land Swap

Protect Our Water sign
Anne Danahy

This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. Dec. 21, 2017.  

The possibility that a student housing development slated for Whitehall Road could get moved to West College Avenue is off the table.

Penn State says the West College land is “strategically important to the long-range health and growth of the university.”

In a statement, the university said:

Although Penn State has no immediate plans for the parcel, it would be irresponsible of the university to enter into negotiations for the West College Avenue property without an evaluation of the best use for the property and related impacts. If and when the university decides the timing is appropriate to develop or sell the West College parcel, it will be through a responsible and deliberative process that will involve an open solicitation, as well as engagement with the impacted municipalities and community.

This comes as the developer, Toll Brothers, said the company is interested in the proposed West College parcel and even submitted an offer to Penn State. In a statement, the company said:

Toll Brothers is bound by, and will meet, the contractual obligations on the Whitehall site with Penn State. We are, however, interested in the West College Avenue parcel, believe it is a viable site and have submitted an offer to Penn State. We are committed to continued dialog regarding the matter.

The Nittany Valley Water Coalition said it plans to sue if the Whitehall Road transaction takes place. The coalition had been pushing Penn State to agree to a land swap with Toll Brothers.

Katherine Watt, vice president of the coalition, said the group would not be preparing the suit if Penn State was acting as a good faith negotiating partner and being open about land use planning.

“I am disappointed and I’m angry. I don’t think they have any respect for the community at all. And I think they keep displaying that over and over again,” Watt said of the university.

The coalition said its suit will ask the court to find that Penn State is a “Commonwealth trustee.” As a state agency, the coalition says, Penn State would be required to protect public natural resources under the state’s Environmental Rights Amendment.

The coalition argues that development of the Whitehall land would jeopardize the State College area’s drinking water supply. Wellfields are downslope from the proposed Toll Brothers development, which would be upscale student housing.

If the suit occurs and the courts find that Penn State is not a state agency, the coalition says it will ask the courts to end Penn State’s tax exemptions and other public subsidies.

“We’ll be striking at the root of Penn State’s hybrid legal status that has allowed it to become a tax-exempt, publicly-subsidized, privately-governed, for-profit corporation,” said Kelli Hoover, president of the coalition, in a news release. The coalition is being incorporated as the nonprofit Nittany Valley Environmental Coalition.

Penn State is a “state-related” university. It is not subject to the same state Right to Know rules as public institutions.

Anne Danahy is a reporter at WPSU. She was a reporter for nearly 12 years at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, where she earned a number of awards for her coverage of issues including the impact of natural gas development on communities.
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