Logan residents uneasy over PSU forest plan

Neighbors of 39-acre tract fear rezoning could lead to building

Residents of an area across from the main entrance of Penn State Altoona remained uneasy Tuesday over the college’s request that Logan Township rezone the campus’ 39-acre Seminar Forest from residential to institutional, despite a college representative’s arguments before the township Planning Commission that the forest will remain green space.

The residents don’t object to the college’s wish to hire a forester, landscape architect and accessibility consultant to create a master plan to formalize the hill’s existing use for environmental education, biological research, sustainability studies and public recreation, but they fear that the rezoning — which the college needs to obtain a grant for the study — leaves open the possibility that the college could switch to plans for dorms, classrooms or something else.

Penn State coordinator of grants and contracts Andrew Mack assured the residents that accepting the requested $150,000 from the state would “lock in” the college’s commitment to keeping the land green, but neighbor George Gibboney said that if the township rezones the ground, “all bets are off.”

The neighbors want to keep their frequent views of wildlife and continue the ground’s protection against threats to wells, they indicated to the commission, which plans to decide Jan. 15 whether to recommend that the township supervisors rezone the ground.

The neighbors don’t seem to realize that a township denial probably puts the ground at greater risk for the kind of development they don’t want than the rezoning, because if the college can’t obtain the grant and thus do the planning necessary to manage the forest, build proper trails and signage, construct a pavilion shelter and remove liability hazards like unsound trees and limbs, there’s no guarantee the university wouldn’t sell the land to a developer for the housing it’s already zoned for, Mack said after the meeting.

Accepting a grant from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources or the Department of Community and Economic Development — both of which would require the land to be rezoned before releasing money — would obligate the college to pursue the plan the grant would help pay to create for 25 years at least, on pain of paying it back with interest and more importantly, on pain of damaging the entire Penn State system’s reputation for fidelity to promises, Mack said.

There would be further assurance for the residents during the two-year development of the master plan, which would require extensive public participation, Mack said.

Mack declined to say whether the college would unilaterally add a deed restriction to guarantee the property remains green space.

A unilateral promise by a petitioner for rezoning in the form of a deed restriction is legal, according to township Planning Director Cassandra Schmick.

By contrast, a bilateral deal in which the township agrees to rezone if the petitioner agrees to a deed restriction constitutes contract zoning — illegal in Pennsylvania, Schmick said.

Either of the potential grants would require the college contribute match money for the project, but that doesn’t mean the college would be willing to pay the whole cost, Mack indicated.

Nor would the university necessarily be willing to handle the project “in-house,” calling on experts from University Park, he indicated, in answer to commissioner Ed Zang.

Forgoing the grant would not only mean higher initial costs, but it would also mean forgoing additional grants that would likely be available if the college begins with a state grant for the master plan, Mack said.

Before next week’s meeting, Schmick plans to check on the deed to the property for restrictions that would limit what the college can do with it.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.