Dismembering hydras and cultivating a field of wildflowers. Or my thoughts on the joint meeting of the SCBWA and Ferguson Board of Supervisors

Tait Field

Since it’s been a couple weeks since the joint meeting of the State College Borough Water Authority and the Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors, I want to make sure some things stay in the top of our minds. [Watch the session here.] There is an interesting metaphor that board chair Dick Mascolo used regarding development. He called it a “two-headed monster.” With other participants including Drew Clemson (Ferguson Board), Jason Grottini (Source Water Protection Committee Chair for the SCBWA), Jeff Kern (Vice-chair of SCBWA), and a few members of the public’s remarks in mind, I think we have a better vision for moving on whether the development proceeds or not. [See the SCBWA’s comments here.]

Mascolo noted that there is development going in elsewhere on the 45 square miles of the SCBWA’s Zone 2 areas. He was glad that Jason Grottini said the threat from The Cottages presented “a minimum risk.” But then Mascolo called the development in this zone “a two-headed monster.” I’d actually say it’s more pernicious than that.

It’s a hydra. If you try to contain it by cutting off a head, you get two more. In order to slay it, you have to burn the stump. Violent imagery aside, if we want to contain development on ecologically sensitive well fields and other areas of exceptional value (even unexceptional value) then we have to provide perennial buffers. That’s where Jeff Kern’s observation and Grottini’s recommendations are important.

Kern said that the parcel shouldn’t have been rezoned to high-density residential in 2004. That 3-2 vote (Irvin, Pytel, and Mascolo Yays and Miller and Killian Nays) was an error in the SCBWA’s judgment. He recognizes it would be laborious to undo it. It would also be legally very difficult and expensive. Shy of rezoning, we need to get better provisions into developments, presumably in a more proactive way than this project.

That’s where Grottini’s recommendations come in. They include developing a new Well Head Overlay District, new regulations for land use, and more regular (dare I say continuous?) solicitation of input from SCBWA on development. All of this could enrich the soil for low impact development. Drew Clemson seems to agree.

Clemson’s been involved in municipal government for over 30 years. He’s been a civil servant as a cop and has continued to serve Ferguson as a supervisor. And he can’t believe that the State College Borough Water Authority has never been consulted on development up to this point. He said,

It boggles my mind that this is the first time that the water authority has been consulted in reference to development…I’ve seen [the township] go from a population of 6,400 people when I started working here to close to 18,000. And this is the first time in all that development that we have consulted—collectively—with the Water Authority. I cannot believe how remiss those who have come before me and others on this board have been. How could we be so foolish and so remiss? It disturbs me.

It disturbs me too. It disturbs over 2,000 people who signed a petition.

When I first spoke to the board about this project a few months ago, I presaged what Clemson said. I addressed The Cottages—calling them The Boxes—as a failure (read here). I said,

So when is enough, enough? It’s enough when thousands of us tell you that this project failed. Failure is a great teacher. But you have to listen to learn from it.

Clemson’s predecessors failed. That’s not a harsh or disparaging judgment of them. We all fail. But we have to acknowledge failure for what it is, listen, reflect, and learn. I think Clemson sees that and he and the other board members are listening. To whom? To many of us, the concerned citizens and to the SCBWA. Clemson thinks the SCBWA needs to be more involved. Yes! We are collectively learning deep civic and ecological lessons. We are becoming more full ecological citizens through this process! [Full disclosure: That link connects to a piece by Dr. Mark Kissling with whom I am co-authoring an article.]

Kern prompted him to take that to the Centre Region Council of Governments and advocate for SCBWA involvement to become the status quo. If there was a moment in all of this when I felt like I could actually celebrate something, it was then.

If the project goes forward, I hope Kern is right and that SCBWA and the citizenry can further influence its design. Given the plain facts of the matter regarding storm water it would behoove the Toll Brothers to act responsibly and responsively. A really wet year like this one should prompt them to be proactive.

How? By enhancing tree lines and tree cover as Laura Dininni brought up at the meeting (see the PSU Extension document she cited here or watch a related webinar here). By using vegetation and other forms of low impact development onsite. It will prevent storm water problems for folks like Joe Homan, a farmer who spoke at the joint meeting. His property is adjacent to the Penn State parcel. It will beautify the surroundings, provide an interesting design approach for landscape architects, help with water filtration, slow water infiltration, prevent erosion, and reduce heat island effects. That’s an awful lot of wins. Not doing so can increase the likelihood of catastrophic sink holes (catastrophic is a relative term here) and increase chemical run off and its likelihood of entering drains. Jason Grottini and the SCBWA seem to think impact development are good ideas too. [Want to learn more about Green Infrastructure, check out these webinars.] There needs to be a new normal.

The hydra is not healthy. It should never be normal. We need to contain the hydra by burning its stumps. I will not concede this development’s inevitability until it happnes. At the same time we need to work toward making it not just less bad, but an actual improvement of the land. This will only happen if we foster and nurture it towards ecological and sustainable design. Work to make every available nook into a water-filtering, air-scrubbing, thermally-regulating, and habitat-restoring niche. Then, let’s move all this initiative and momentum into future ordinances in Ferguson and the surrounding area to build a case for cautious, steady, and biophilic development.

Today, I have a meeting with Senior Vice President of Finance and Business at Penn State, David Gray, and the Associate Vice President of the Office of Physical Plant, Steve Maruszewski. I will ask them to do two things: A) stop The Cottages and B) start the process to put the hundreds of acres of agricultural land adjacent to that parcel into permanent conservation through a conservation easement or agricultural easement. Because the parcel is already an Agricultural Security Area, the path is pretty straightforward. We will never get a “Yes” unless we ask.

The Cottages may (may) go forward. But all that land beyond it, out there past the growth boundary, is where the tipping points and the dominoes lie. On this, Jeff Kern and I seem to agree. It’s also where food is grown and water drains and we can find peace of mind. It’s where more hydra heads will sprout unless we stop them from ever growing.

Tait Field

Let’s approach our future with care, love and reverence. This is our home. For now, let’s celebrate this window of opportunity and build on it to secure our water, open space, and peace of mind. Let’s make the hydra something with a lot of beautiful heads. Let’s transform it from a voracious serpent into a synergistic system. Let’s be like a field of wildflowers where we can be as productive as bees, as at peace as we can be, knowing we are doing the right thing.

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9 thoughts on “Dismembering hydras and cultivating a field of wildflowers. Or my thoughts on the joint meeting of the SCBWA and Ferguson Board of Supervisors

  1. This went into a lot more detail than my letter to the editor! I’m just hoping more people and municipalities watch the presentation and consider it a good idea.

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    1. I was actually really surprised to learn about that, and I’m sure others were as well. I think people always assumed that SCBWA and other water authorities are just part of the process of every development, but it’s pretty clear that they aren’t. I can’t tell if that’s because of the status quo or because SCBWA just never expected their opinion to matter at all. I think it’s a little ironic that all of the directed anger at Ferguson over this development comes at a time when they may be boldly setting a new precedent for how to manage the land and water resources and include SCBWA in the development conversation.

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