The official map engages us with the community & the land

Last Monday the Ferguson Township board moved the official map forward for final vote on June 19th. This planning document helps citizens, planners, township staff, landowners, and developers understand some of the township’s intentions for the next several years and visualize potential futures. We had lots of citizen input that helped visioning with planning staff and supervisors. One place on this map drew particular attention–land on the eastern owned by Penn State and some other landowners that surrounds both the contentious Whitehall Road Regional Park planned site and the potential Cottages planned residential development.

Some citizens wanted a few hundred acres designated as passive park land to preserve it. I agree that we need a strong land preservation strategy for the township. As I’ve written before, we need to contain the hydra of development. Without some kind of coherent means to protect the growth boundary and constrain the sewer service area we will fail to limit encroachment on forests, meadows, high-quality agricultural land, our streams, and wells. The beauty and integrity of the area that residents hold most dear will be desecrated by more cookie-cutter development. And for whose advantage? In this case for the profits of a distant corporation with a track record of environmental violations. All that said, I’m not inclined to designate land between Whitehall Road and Route 45 to be a park at this time. Why?

Draft Ferguson Township official map. The parcels tentatively designated passive park are in pink stripes along the eastern border with Harris Township.

Last year, the board adopted a Strategic Plan that focuses on growth management, environmental stewardship, increased participatory government, and partnership and regional cooperation. We have to prioritize each of those in context and think about consequences across the board. Designating a few hundred acres of agricultural land owned by some individual(s) or entity/ies–in this case Penn State–as park land with no plan for it and no discussion by the board makes little sense to me. Additionally, it would disrupt other known deliberations about that land by implicitly threatening the use of eminent domain or some such thing. Penn State objected to the designation in two letters. As a non-profit entity with an educational mission, I’m inclined to respect their voice*, though their track record of land sales that have gone into development, including the Circleville Farm and the Cottages land, raises my eyebrows. But I’m neither naive nor cynical. I approach the situation with a healthy skepticism about what will play out and a commitment to think 10, 25, 50, and 100 years out about our region.

The land in question is currently farmed, is zoned as agricultural land, and should be kept that way as far as I’m concerned. It’s to our collective benefit to work with farmers and agricultural organizations including the university to steward exceptional farmland. That’s why we should move toward a more productive conversation so that the land can be placed into an easement and/or use as a research farm or institute for food security. I, for one, will continue to reach out to the university’s administration to renew requests for land conservation that are in line with our township and region’s priorities, protect the State College Borough Water Authority’s source waters, and serve Penn State’s land grant mission. I don’t believe designating this land a passive park necessarily or sufficiently serves those goals, though I believe smart people of good will do believe that and that the land could include passive recreational uses. It is, perhaps, a question of emphasis.

Recently, President Eric Barron offered to host a set of regional long-term planning initiatives. The area’s population has continued to grow. The Spring Creek Watershed Commission is initiating Phase II of a watershed management plan. Development pressures continue to push on the growth boundary. The area continues to be the home of technological development and innovation. Perhaps it’s time we take Dr. Barron up on the offer and create a co-equal and co-created vision for the region.

I once again ask citizens and partners to think and work together for a long-term and genuinely sustainable approach to our region’s development. The slow work of community building comes from deliberate engagement outside our official meetings and informs wise decisions. The discussions about the official map have shown that our community can do this and will very likely continue to do so if we are all engaged honestly and openly.

*I work at at Penn State’s Sustainability Institute where I have no decision-making ability within the university regarding land, finances, or anything regarding this issue. My opinions are my own.


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