This Friday, the Penn State Board of Trustees will deliberate the controversial sale of Circleville Farm, a 150-acre area of land about one mile west and the largest tract of open space left within the regional growth boundary. The farm produces feed for the College of Agricultural Sciences, which owns the property but wishes to sell it to finance the purchase of cheaper land elsewhere. The board meeting in the Nittany Lion Inn and is -- as usual -- open to the public, although seating is limited.
Chris Uhl, professor of biology and faculty adviser of the Green Destiny Council, is the tour-de-force behind the most recent grassroots movement to save the Circleville Farm from a fate of unsustainable development.
In an opinion column recently, Uhl laid down his sardonic reaction to the university's handling of the proposed sale: "The fact that 'the university' would consider the 'highest and best use' of the Circleville Farm to be another housing development [because in the words of one administrator, 'the farm lies in a development corridor'] reveals an astonishing lack of vision in my opinion. Another unsettling feature of the Circleville RFP [request for proposals] is its truncated time fuse -- less than four weeks between the first call for proposals and the final deadline. Mind you, this is a property that Penn State has held for decades. One can hardly help but wonder: 'Why rush to sell it for development in a matter of weeks?' "
Uhl also wags a finger at the university for initially fast-tracking the sale of the farm to S & A Homes before inviting competitive offers with a formal RFP. He notes: "It shouldn't go without notice that William Schreyer [emeritus trustee at Penn State] -- the same "Schreyer" who has been so generous to Penn State over the years -- happens to be a major investor in S & A Homes."
At Uhl's suggestion, I spoke to Charles Eisenstein, an instructor of health and human development with an alternative vision for the future of Circleville Farm. His vision stands in opposition to run-of-the-mill development: "With all kind of people at Penn State in cutting-edge urban planning, green design, agriculture, recreation and leisure studies, I picture Circleville Farm being put to a more imaginative use." Throwing out numerous possibilities, Eisenstein mentioned the establishment of an eco-college on the farm, offering hands-on experience in the use of Living Machines, solar power and advanced sustainable construction techniques. He also suggested using the farm to grow organic produce for Penn State's dining halls.
Uhl noted that such green ideas fit two objectives of the Faculty Senate's long-term goals statement, passed unanimously and signed by President Spanier: to "utilize, to the fullest extent possible, food produced using sustainable practices" and to "create and abide by a land ethic that promotes stewardship of natural processes, ecosystems and the conservation of green space."
But some in the administration have pointed out that sustainability had its chance. Two years ago, the Hamer Center for Community Design Assistance, which seeks to "be a progressive community design center that will lead others in an integrative approach to design and planning," proposed a plan for the sustainable development of the Circleville Farm.
As The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on Sunday, "the Hamer Center visualized half of Circleville Farm preserved as hiking areas, play fields and little-disturbed green space. It saw the rest as a closely clustered mix of single-family homes, duplexes, rowhouses and apartments, bringing a mix of ages and incomes."
That "Eur-open" space plan was shot down by the Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors, which has jurisdiction over the farm's zoning (now rural agriculture), in a 3-2 vote. In regard to the vote, Dan Sieminski, assistant vice president for finance and business, pointed out that "some people will say it was really close, but it was still rejected."
But why was it rejected? That was my question for the Ferguson Supervisor Dottie Schmidt. She said the Hamer Center's proposal would have required "substantial changes in zoning ordinances" she and others on the board were reluctant to embark on. A talented side-stepper, that's about all the information I was able to extract from Schmidt, who voted against the proposal. But there's little doubt in my mind that should the farm be sold to a real-estate developer, the Board of Supervisors will graciously rezone the farm for development. After all, Schmidt couldn't recall the board turning down a formal rezoning proposal in her seven years as a member.
I also spoke with trustee Anne Riley, a long-time resident of the area and former English teacher. Out of numerous trustees, I chose Riley for her reputation as a "trustee of the people" and her work with the Mount Nittany Conservancy. A self-proclaimed "Valley girl," Riley spoke from the heart about her feelings on the changes she has witnessed over the years: "A little piece of me dies when another cornfield goes. ... I used to be able to say, 'I live four cornfields from the university,' but not anymore." Despite her concern, she has come to terms with the sale of the farm, choosing to focus on the fact that as an operational farm, Circleville isn't in the most ideal location. She views the farm as a healthy trade-in for the purchase of two or three times as much land contiguous to the College of Agricultural Sciences's farms north and east of campus. "If you look at a map, you'll see that the Circleville Farm is just completely cut off."
What's my opinion? Believe it or not, I'm not sure; I still have too many unanswered questions.
And that's why I think the wisest thing for the Board of Trustees to do this Friday is to continue the deliberation, but put off a vote until more of the facts are clear and readily available to the public.