Potential Raystown development pits ecology against economy

From his vacation property near Raystown Lake, James Gates can look out at his wooded surroundings and appreciate the local wildlife.

He’s seen bobcats, coyotes and deer, but last month, he talked mostly about bears.

“You should see my bear videos,” he said, boasting slightly.

Gates said he now fears those animals could be displaced.

A plan that regulates construction along the lake is being re-evaluated, and a Texas developer hopes it will soon allow his company to build a multi-million-dollar resort and marina.

The project proposed for Terrace Mountain and the nearby Hawn’s Bridge Peninsula has received support from Huntingdon County tourism and business leaders, who have touted potential income and job growth they say would ripple throughout the community.

But environmental activists and local recreation enthusiasts have said the proposed resort could threaten the area’s wild and natural aesthetic.

“It would just destroy that area, that very critical area,” Gates said.

The project

Raystown Lake, a man-made landmark in Huntingdon County, was constructed in the early 1970s to provide flood risk management and to facilitate recreation and “environmental stewardship.”

The 8,300-acre, 30-mile-long lake is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and development along its shore is regulated by an existing master plan.

In 2017, the Corps of Engineers rejected an $89 million development proposal for a resort-like lodge and adjacent marina in the area of Hawn’s Bridge Peninsula.

The proposal by Texas-based Lancer Resources LP called for construction of a high-end lodge on more than 400 acres of privately owned land atop Terrace Mountain in Union Township.

The Terrace Mountain Lodge was described as similar to the Omni Bedford Springs Resort by Janet Chambers of Beacon Marketing Solutions, which is working with Lancer locally.

The lodge would include 220 hotel rooms, a “high-end” restaurant and bar and a spa, as well as a wedding chapel, meeting rooms and an indoor pool.

Lancer’s original proposal also requested the construction of a marina and recreation area on leased land atop the adjacent Hawn’s Bridge Peninsula with room to park 150 boats.

The marina and adjacent Hawn’s Bridge Recreation Area did not fit development guidelines of a master plan for the lake drafted in 1994, Corps of Engineers officials said.

“We evaluated that proposal against the current master plan and denied it,” said Nicholas Krupa, the Corps’ Raystown operations manager.

Rod Roberts, Lancer’s head, declined a request to discuss the proposed development. Chambers said he was ill.

Instead, she spoke on Roberts behalf, explaining plans to develop the area have not been abandoned.

In 2016, an act of U.S. Congress required an update of Raystown’s master plan.

Krupa said the average lifespan of a master plan is 15 to 25 years, meaning Raystown “was about ready for revision anyway.”

Once the plan is revised, Lancer Resources will have a second chance to present its development proposal, Krupa confirmed.

“The master plan process has started,” he said, explaining the process is expected to take about two years.

“This master plan will involve some considerable review of the environmental assets here — endangered plants or other species,” Krupa said.

Environmental concerns

Environmental concerns likely will play a role at an upcoming public meeting about the master plan, which is to be scheduled sometime this month.

There, community members will be able to voice both support and opposition for the proposed development.

They have been doing the same in the days before a meeting is announced.

“We are definitely opposed,” said Laura Jackson, president of the Juniata Valley Audubon Society. “It’s basically because of ecological impacts.”

In a post on the society’s website, the peninsula is described as having “such high ecological significance that it is designated as a Huntingdon County Natural Heritage Area ‘of exceptional value.'”

The area’s rare habitats are home to threatened and endangered plant life, as well invertebrates like the southern pine looper moth, the promiscuous angle and the noctuid moth, the society claims.

Last month, Jackson said she also is researching potential impacts to local bat species.

When the project was denied, Corps of Engineers officials rejected the plan partly because the affected land is a protected “bat mitigation area,” according to a Mirror report from that time.

Losing wildlife and forest habitats is also a concern of Gates, who talked at length about the hunting, fishing and animal-watching opportunities his property and its surroundings provide.

“I have a cabin up on the hill,” he said. “It almost abuts the land that is owned by Mr. Roberts.”

Gates worries that construction work, light pollution and recreation-related noise will scare animals away from his cabin, limiting sightings for both himself and others who enjoy the area.

That concern is what led Gates to join the Coalition to Protect Hawn’s Peninsula, a group that opposes development.

Recreation at risk

The coalition’s membership isn’t solely the result of environmental concerns, said Ginny Gill.

In recent years, Gill said she has enjoyed kayaking on the lake because of its typically tranquil waters.

Still, when larger boats are moving nearby, the lake can become choppy, making it more difficult for Gill and others to paddle.

A marina with the capacity to hold more than 100 boats could exacerbate that problem, Gill said, explaining some people already feel water traffic is too high.

There are also concerns that the availability of a new marina will further crowd boat launches that are already congested on summer weekends, she said.

Those factors likely played a part in the existing master plan’s creation, Gill said.

“I think that in the plan they realize that the lake can’t support too many of these,” she said.

Raystown Lake also is known for its angling opportunities, Gill said, suggesting fish populations also may be affected by development.

“This is a fishing destination,” she said.

The Pennsylvania Striped Bass Association — a group dedicated to preserving “the landlocked striped bass fisheries of Pennsylvania, primarily Lake Raystown” — declined to comment on development plans.

The same was true for the Friends of Raystown Lake, which “has no position on the Hawn’s Peninsula matter as some members are for it and some against it,” group President Ron Rabena said in an email.

George Conrad, a local outdoorsman and coalition president, did not shy away from voicing his opposition.

“We feel that the majority of local residents don’t want it,” he said.

However, Conrad said he is aware that sentiments are not the only factor being weighed by the team working to create a new master plan.

So like Gates, he backed his opposition with fears that a wild area where he has spent hours hiking could soon disappear.

“This is just one of those areas of Raystown Lake that just is untouched,” he said. “You’ll see nature habitats for animals and birds. … This would totally disrupt that.”

Economic potential

Speaking on behalf of the developer, Chambers address Conrad’s concerns directly, saying the loss of one hiking spot along a lake with more than 100 miles of shoreline is worth it for the potential economic benefits Lancer’s resort would create.

“There still will be a lot of trails there to run,” she said. “There are thousand and thousands of acres of undeveloped land along Raystown Lake.”

She also had a rebuttal for those with environmental concerns.

“I understand environmentalists have every right to voice their opinions. I don’t think they have accurate information often,” she said. “Some people oppose all development regardless of how it benefits the community.”

Summer jobs for high school students and permanent jobs for adults were among some of the numerous benefits that Chambers predicted.

Supplies also likely will be purchased from area businesses, and tax revenue and larger visitor numbers could help to encourage growth in neighboring communities, with increased traffic to restaurants and storefronts, she said.

And there is little doubt among project supporters that visitor numbers will increase, said Matthew Price, executive director at the Huntingdon County Visitors Bureau.

“It absolutely would help tourism,” he said. “We are definitely supportive of it.”

Expanding lodging

Currently, there are fewer than 300 traditional hotel rooms in the Raystown area. During the summer months, those rooms, in addition to other lodging facilities, are often more than 80 percent booked, Price said.

The proposed resort would nearly double available rooms, and it would provide more upscale accomodations, possibly attracting wealthier visitors.

“It would be kind of more luxurious accommodations,” he said. “We don’t currently have any hotel properties that serve that clientele.”

That’s a position backed by leaders at Huntingdon County Business & Industry, said Bob Reitman, the organization’s executive director.

Last year, a study by the Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission estimated that 300 year-round jobs could stem from the development, translating into millions of dollars in annual payroll.

That income could have a lasting impact on areas like nearby Mount Union, which Reitman described as a “poor community.”

“Most of the jobs would be of a living wage,” he said.

And there are possibilities for students at nearby Juniata College to also benefit from the development, said Chuck Yohn, director of the college’s Raystown field station.

College leaders have endorsed Lancer’s plans.

Yohn said he is acting as a liaison between Lancer and the college, and he plans to work with the developer to ensure “this can be done right with very low environmental impact.”

If constructed, the resort could offer internships to Juniata students and a discussed nature center could provide even more opportunities to educate both students and the general public.

“We look forward to having input and partneringing to create a nature center for the area,” Yohn said. “It could be a model for the nation.”

Arguments both for and against the development likely will be considered at upcoming Corps of Engineers meetings.

“I have full faith that they are going to do an excellent job in weighing all the facts,” Conrad said.

Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.

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