Woods rezoning draws concern

Penn State Altoona needs land use changed for grant

About a dozen residents of the area across from the main entrance of Penn State Altoona made clear this week they’re uneasy about the college’s request that the Logan Township supervisors rezone the college’s 39-acre Seminar Forest from residential to institutional.

They wouldn’t mind if the college follows through on plans to use the proposed rezoning to make the land eligible for a state grant to pay for a master plan that would enhance the college’s existing use of the steep-sided wooded ground southwest of Juniata Gap Road and Beckers Lane, where it holds environmental science classes, conducts ecological research and maintains trails that are open to the public.

But the residents worry that making the ground institutional would open it to other uses, like construction of dormitories, classrooms or even a nursing home, regardless of the college’s declared intentions.

Legal restrictions against “contract zoning” don’t permit the township to prohibit those other uses that come automatically with the institutional zone, township Planning Director Cassandra Schmick explained to the residents at a Planning Commission meeting.

“The township can’t make (rezoning) a condition” of following through on the stated plans, Schmick said. “You have to go by what the property owner says.”

Enhancing the existing uses of the land as a forest preserve dedicated to education of college students, students from other local schools and for the recreation of the public is fine, but building dorms or classrooms would ruin the rustic appeal of his property, said John Grassinger, who lives beyond the western end of the tract.

Dorms or classrooms on top of the woods near their house would deprive them of frequent sightings of wildlife like deer and bear and could jeopardize their water well, said Grassinger’s wife, Sandy Madigan.

Asked after the meeting whether she trusted the college to follow through on its plans, Madigan said, “No, I don’t.”

The township could solve the problem by rezoning only a small portion of the tract — a flat area along Beckers Lane — the only part truly suitable for buildings, to ensure that nothing objectionable would go on the rest of the ground, suggested resident George Gibboney.

But the college needs the entire tract to be rezoned to be eligible for the grant, Schmick said.

The tract is the only natural area adjacent to the Ivyside campus, and so wouldn’t be a candidate for construction of “classrooms or other structures,” the college stated in a letter that accompanied its zoning application. Eventual construction of those other buildings would “optimally occur in the occupied areas already zoned institutional,” the letter stated.

The college didn’t send a representative to the meeting to further explain its intentions, because the township accidentally misinformed the college about the meeting time, it was revealed after the meeting ended.

The commission tabled the matter and rescheduled it for a meeting at 5 p.m. Jan. 8.

The planning commission eventually will send a recommendation on the matter to the township supervisors, who will rule, following a public hearing.

At a meeting this summer, the supervisors declared themselves in favor of the rezoning.

Pennsylvania is one of the states where case law prohibits “contract zoning,” as well as the similar “conditional zoning,” according to Philip L. Fraietta, writing in the Fordham Law Review.

Pennsylvania courts have struck down contract zoning — firm “bilateral” deals that obligates both the developer and the municipality — because the concession on the municipal side is seen as a bargaining away of police powers, which in the case of zoning, restrict what can and can’t be done on a property, according to Fraietta.

Some states permit at least some forms of contract zoning, and even more permit conditional zoning — “unilateral” arrangements in which municipalities may indicate but don’t promise in legally binding fashion to grant rezoning requests in exchange for developers’ binding promises to accept agreed-upon restrictions, according to Shelby D. Green, writing in the Capital University Law Review.

The trend in recent times has been toward liberalizing the restrictions against contract and conditional zoning, in the interest of creating flexibility, according to online sources.

While the township may not be able legally to extract a promise from the college that it will follow through on its plans, the state Department of Con­servation and Natural Resources, the granting agency, will likely make such follow-through a condition of the grant, Schmick has said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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