Tipping Points and Dominoes

Well, I just got my paperwork from the Board of Elections for Centre County. Time to accept my nomination as the Democratic nominee for Ferguson Township’s Ward 2. And there’s a bit to catch up on since returning from the Transylvania Epic and getting caught up with work (I work at Penn State’s Sustainability Institute). Here’s a quick reflection on a couple of things from the last week or so.

A few pieces appeared over the last week or so in the Centre Daily Times that have to do with the proposed Toll Brothers development. One letter to the editor from Mary Gage asks why we should let a known polluter, one fined over $700,00 for polluting and investigated by the EPA, build more needless luxury student housing here. Good question. It seems contrary to the conservation easement immediately adjacent to the proposed development.

A second piece was a “Their View” piece by Jeff Kern, vice chairman of the State College Borough Water Authority. Before I say anything about Kern’s piece, I want to say that I am really grateful to the SCBWA for their work. They are technically knowledgeable and civically minded. The three members with whom I’ve had contact with over the years are good people whose expertise and environmental and civic consciousness I admire.

There are a few things to note in the piece which are basically summed up in this paragraph:

The water authority’s role is not to support, approve or deny land development projects. Our task is to provide clean, safe water. Any and all surface development and surface uses have the potential of contributing to groundwater pollution. Obviously, the more surface uses, from commercial and industrial to residential to transportation, the more chance there is for contamination. We don’t know when or how much pressure will bring about that tipping point. The risk of groundwater pollution will be much greater if a coordinated and thorough assessment is not conducted prior to making a land use decision.

Three things stick out. First, the SCBWA’s role and their authority do not extend into policy. They suggest and advise development. Second, at the end he implies that we need good information to make good decisions. And they have been able to prompt better water safety plans that have been followed through on by the engineers in the project. These are good things. But third, and most importantly to my mind, has to do with risk and uncertainty.

The SCBWA nor anyone else knows where the tipping point for damaging this well field is. I’d rather not invite a tipping point scenario and neither do most of our residents—at least the many I have talked to, whose comments I’ve read, and who have spoken loud and clear at multiple venues. So while the SCBWA has prompted a much better plan for the water threat and should be thanked for it, I don’t see this as a technical problem with a technical solution.

The problem should not be a problem. Penn State should not purchase and sell strategic properties in areas where communities do not want growth. That was what David Gray of Business and Finance implied at the #PSUstrong Town Hall the other day, that somehow Penn State should be able to buy and sell property to manufacture money for itself (I’ll write more on this later). They successfully lobbied for a rezoning about 10 years ago and now they can sell it for a profit of about $13.5 million. It doesn’t matter that the community knows this will be an eyesore nor that it paves the way (literally) for further development on that land. First it’ll be an ill-conceived set of Astroturf ball fields that will “need” to be used. Who will use it? The future homeowners and renters whose cookie-cutter homes will occupy and despoil productive land. This project is a domino that will knock down more dominoes that will go over that tipping point. Penn State’s, the Toll Brothers’ and other developers’ and money men’s imperative for growth at all costs will find that tipping point and push it over.

That’s risky. It seems like there is uncertainty when Kern writes, “We don’t know when or how much pressure will bring about that tipping point.” I’d say that what’s certain is that we know there are mounting pressures, that mounting pressures cause blowouts, and that a blowout will cost that system’s health to fail in some way.

No thanks. Let’s be sane, go back to the drawing board and redraw the growth boundary, and revise our planning. Like I said in the previous post about bike racing, “There is honor in failure.” So let’s learn from this failure before it’s really ugly and start fresh. With me?

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