Update October 17, 2017 – Penn State Evicts Protesters Fighting Toll Brothers Development
On Wednesday, October 4, 2017, Penn State evicted the protesters camping out on a plot of university land slated for development by the embattled construction conglomerate Toll Brothers. In Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, Toll Brothers is facing down multiple lawsuits from homeowners who accuse the company of cutting corners in stucco-clad residential developments. But in Ferguson Township, the “luxury” homebuilder is looking at a battle of a very different nature, according to Centre Daily Times.
The company’s proposed project, intended to create high-priced student housing, will threaten two well fields close at hand, local advocates say. Most homes in the area receive their drinking water from these fields. And protesters, who gathered under the name Nittany Valley Water Coalition, believe Toll Brothers’ construction will hurt water quality for hundreds of families.
Coalition Moves Demonstration To Mormon Church
So they camped out, for 124 days, posting signs, pitching a tent and standing guard at all hours of the day to raise awareness and prevent construction from moving forward. Their efforts, however, conflicted with Penn State policy. About a week before their eviction, the protesters received a “final notice” to remove themselves and their effects from the Toll Brothers site, but few of them budged. Instead, they set up a separate demonstration on an adjacent property, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church.
When University officials and Ferguson Township police officers showed up on the morning of October 4, the protesters watched from the safety of the Church’s property as their tent, lean-to canopies and table were taken away. They’d been expecting the authorities to arrive at some point, David Stone, a resident of State College, told reporters. Stone has visited the protest site regularly since it was set up in June. The University’s recent decision to evict the demonstration is “silly,” Stone says. “It makes our lives a lot harder,” he continued, “but we’ll be here.”
“Penn State is exercising its rights under the law as property owner to remove the illegal encampment from the site,” University spokesperson Lisa Powers told State College News.
Toll Brothers Reviews Alternative Construction Site
In theory, Toll Brothers can now begin to plan its construction in detail; the company is already under contract to acquire the land. The proposal, as of now, is to build a 264-unit luxury housing development for students, which would be called The Cottages at State College.
But with urging from the local water advocates, Toll Brothers has begun to consider alternative sites for its development. A second site, on West College Avenue in front of a Penn State-owned golf course, is being reviewed at the moment during a 60-day evaluation period granted to Toll Brothers. In fact, according to members of the Nittany Valley Water Coalition, the company has proved surprisingly amenable to negotiation.
Locals Blame Penn State, Ferguson Board
It’s Penn State University, not Toll Brothers, who the protestors blame for the problem. As it waits for the dispute to be settled, Penn State is thinking about giving a seasonal lease to a local farmer so the site can be used.
Meanwhile, the Nittany Valley Water Coalition’s lawsuit against the Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors is still awaiting a response from the State’s Supreme Court. In their lawsuit, a group of 15 local homeowners accuse the Board of violating Township ordinances in approving Toll Brothers’ development plans. While two lower State courts have looked over the issue, their rulings have diverged on key points. The Water Coalition is now asking the Supreme Court to hear the case.
A conspicuous “No Trespassing” sign appeared last week at the edges of a State College, Pennsylvania plot of land slated for development by controversial home builder Toll Brothers, according to StateCollege.com. The target of these signs was no mystery for the dozen or so protesters who have camped out at the site since June 3, 2017.
State College Locals Form Protest Camp
State College locals, joined by advocates for the Nittany Valley Water Coalition, have staked their claim to the land, erecting a make-shift encampment on the fringe of a sweeping overgrown field just outside Penn State University’s main campus.
Drinking Water Under Threat, Demonstrators Say
The problem with Toll Brother’s planned development, a suite of luxury student housing dubbed “The Cottages at State College,” is that construction threatens two nearby well fields, Slab Cabin Run and Harter-Thomas, which provide drinking water for most homes serviced by the State College Borough Water Authority.
These concerns were first raised years ago, when Penn State originally announced its intention to sell the property to Toll Brothers. Soon after, a group of 15 landowners, including Kelli Hoover, a professor of entomology at Penn State, sued the Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors, saying the Board had violated Township ordinances in approving the plans. After two conflicting rulings in lower courts, the Nittany Valley Water Coalition has now petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to hear their case.
Signs Violate Ferguson Ordinance
While owned by Penn State, the 44-acre plot is located in Ferguson, and thus comes under the Township’s authority. Town officials have not lent their support to the protestors’ efforts. Instead, Ferguson’s zoning administrator, Jeffrey Ressler, has asked Penn State, who still owns the land for now, to take care of the “signs and banners” erected by the Nittany Valley Water Coalition.
Small placards reading “Save Our Water!” and “Protect Family Farms!” cropped up nearly a month ago, creating a ring around the small community garden planted by the demonstrators. In the background, a cluster of two-person tents provide the protestors with a measure of privacy. Meanwhile, members of the community have placed their support behind the Coalition, donating $42,000 for legal fees and sign-making supplies.
“They Plan To Put Up Roadblocks”
Penn State is angry about the encampment. In a letter sent to the Centre Daily Times, University spokesperson Lisa Powers wrote, “the area where the protest is occurring is not open to the public, and the protesters’ presence on the site violates university policy and has not been consented to by Penn State.” Powers also noted a general Penn State policy that prohibits camping outside of designated areas.
The demonstrators won’t be kicked out, not yet at least. Instead, Penn State is brokering a meeting between the Nittany Valley Water Coalition and Toll Brothers on August 2, 2017. Kelli Hoover, the Penn State professor and Coalition member, hopes to sell Toll Brothers on a new location for its development. “We believe that Toll Brothers will be very interested in some of these potential sites,” she told reporters. The onus, however, remains on Penn State, Hoover says. “I think it’s going to be up to Penn State to be cooperative.”
The new “No Trespassing” sign, placed by Penn State, is a signal that the University may have other plans in mind. “They plan to put up roadblocks.”
Toll Brothers Hit With Stucco Lawsuits
Toll Brothers has courted controversy throughout Pennsylvania in recent years.
The company’s luxury homes have become a focal point for the growing crisis in stucco construction, which has seen dozens, if not hundreds, of stucco-clad homes rotting away from the inside out. Homeowners throughout the State have stepped forward, telling reporters and attorneys their horror stories, describing rampant water damage and enormously-expensive remediation projects.
Even more surprising, Pennsylvania’s construction experts agree almost unanimously that these stucco-related problems, which go far beyond Toll Brothers, are usually due to defective construction practices.
Jewelers’ Row Proposal Leaves Philly Stunned
In Philadelphia, the company’s “City Living” projects have sparked outrage. Last year, Toll Brothers demolished the much-loved Society Hill Playhouse, only to drop its plans for a new condominium. The developer’s plans for a high-rise on Jeweler’s Row met with similar pushback. Even Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney struck out against the company, calling Toll Brother’s sudden decision to double the building’s proposed height “deeply disturbing.”
On that last point, Toll Brothers has capitulated a bit, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, cutting six stories from its plan for the condominium. Whether or not the company will yield to the Nittany Valley Water Coalition’s demands remains to be seen.