- Where is the Rockview land under consideration for divesture to Benner Township and Penn State?
The land is north of the new Interstate 99. This proposed land divesture consists of approximately 1800 acres of the existing Rockview State Correctional Institute.
- What groups are in line to receive parts of this land?
The proposed owners and acreages of land are:
· Benner Township – 400 acres
· Penn State – 1124 acres
· Rockview State Correctional Institute – 18 acres
· PA Fish and Boat Commission-Benner Springs Hatchery – 59 acres
· PA Department of General Services (DGS) – 235 acres
Several of the DGS parcels near the County Correctional Facility will be sold to the highest bidder. A large 235-acre tract will be held by DGS until an undetermined future date. This is located on the Bellefonte end of the tract.
- Why wasn’t the community included in the discussions of divesture?
The Benner Township Supervisors, as the local elected community leadership, have been included in the discussions since 2002, mostly because we insisted on being a part of the discussion on this potential transfer. We had strong concerns over the possibility of unwanted and unnecessary development of this parcel. We were aware of existing studies that revealed the fragile nature of the diverse biomes that exist here. Additionally, several of the studies identified this swath as a major segment of the County’s Nittany and Bald Eagle Valleys Greenway / Bikeway Plan.
- What is the Ecological Study and what does it recommend for this land?
The ecological study was commissioned by Benner Township and prepared by the Western PA Conservancy (WPAC) to review the ecological health of the Spring Creek basin and its habitat including an area designated as sensitive in the Centre County Natural Heritage Inventory, previously done by the WPAC for Centre County and DCNR. This study is required as part of a grant issued to Benner Township to study and develop a management plan and a master plan for the canyon parcel designated for Township ownership. The study was done as part of an assessment of the ecological stability of the canyon, but included what is referred to as contributing areas. The contributing areas were defined in the Natural Heritage Inventory Study as a swath of land extending from the center of the creek approximately 800 feet on both sides.
The study provides sixteen specific recommendations. Refer to the Spring Creek Valley Ecological Assessment Report, page 8, for a complete listing.
- Why isn’t the study being endorsed by the potential owners?
A difference of opinion exists among experts in the field of study, including researchers at the University, that the approach taken by WPAC was not site specific nor did it provide any specific solutions to protect the unique biomes and species of the parcel. Instead it was a textbook solution to an issue that these experts felt required more specific interpretation and research than what was provided. Some of these experts believe the approach proposed is not tenable or practical and no entity would expend the resources required to achieve the recommendations outlined without scientific evidence that they would achieve the outcomes desired. The review staff of DCNR, which included biologists and forestry experts, rejected the controversial tenet that the entire parcel must be reforested in order to protect the existing assets of the canyon.
Benner Township does not have the expertise to dispute or challenge the recommendations of the study. We have, however, publicly said on numerous occasions that Benner Township has two main objectives: 1) the Township wants to protect the habitats of the rare species known to exist within the canyon area and which are contained on the parcel to be conveyed to the Township, and 2) we wish to retain and maintain the natural environment of the parcel (see the PowerPoint presentation to the Centre County Planning Commission December 2003). To achieve those goals, we have not ruled out the possibility that our third objective – access to the Benner portion of the canyon area by the general public – may be restricted or banned entirely. No other suggested owners of this parcel have been willing to endorse these two objectives.
As points of fact, several sections of this parcel are planned to be conveyed/ retained by State agencies. Neither of these two entities have been willing to commit themselves to the recommendations of the study. Under the land disposition plan, both Fish & Boat and Corrections will continue their operations undisturbed.
- What is the management plan and master plan that’s being developed?
The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) has developed a grant program that provides funding for a variety of initiatives including natural habitat management. To be considered for these funds, DCNR requires that a three-part study be commissioned that addresses environmental concerns, creates a management program and develops a master plan that identifies improvements that should be made. Benner Township created a Citizens’ Advisory Committee in September 2006 to assist the Township in sorting through the numerous competing community interests, listen to public discourse and make recommendations to the Supervisors. The structure of this committee will be modified to create two distinct committees, one to address issues and develop management plans/ master plans and the other to study technical issues and provide expert support to the other committee. This modification has been directed by DCNR. The current draft of the Proposal can be viewed by clicking here.
- Why is Penn State being considered for ownership?
It was the University’s Board of Trustees, whose members include State Legislators, Cabinet Secretaries and leading agriculture industry individuals, who initiated the discussions in Harrisburg regarding the use of these lands for agricultural research. Without this impetus, it is unlikely that the divestment of any of this land would even be proposed.
- Why should Benner Township own the canyon?
As the municipality where the canyon lies, the Supervisors believe the Township has the greatest stake in the future of this area. Individual departments of the State have very specific missions. Utilization of their funds for issues outside their mission is not permitted. While departments such as Fish and Boat, Corrections, and the Game Commission have an interest in what ultimately results from this transaction, each are focused on their particular mission and do not have the same concern even about each others’ missions. Hence, only the agenda of the particular department would be executed. Benner Township has a holist interest in protecting this natural area for future generations.
- What does Benner Township want the land for?
When the Supervisors learned of a possible land transfer of all the land to Penn State, we initiated discussions with Senator Corman and Penn State. We saw the public ownership of the canyon area as a dream shared by many that this natural wonderland might be open to the public. Our initial goals included passive recreation, conservation of the canyon’s natural state, and protection of endangered species. We believe these pursuits to be consistent with studies that have preceded the current effort. However, the Supervisors have noted that public access as had been originally perceived, may not be in the ecological best interest of the canyon at this time. Maintaining the natural state and protecting and even improving endangered species habitat are still focal to our goal.
- Why isn’t Fish and Boat being considered for ownership?
Fish and Boat has a significant portion of land at the east end of the canyon where Fisherman’s Paradise exists. They will obtain an additional 37 acres at the west end where their Benner Springs Hatchery exists. Additionally, Benner Township has agreed to lease the creek bed and bank area to the Commission as has been the current practice with Rockview SCI. However complete ownership of the parcel will not consider all interests nor protect the existing assets from further loss. F&B’s mission statement reads, “The mission of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is to provide fishing and boating opportunities through the protection and management of aquatic resources.” The Commission is not in the business of protecting other types of legitimate interests, such as hunting, biking, nature walking, protection of endangered species, etc.
- Why isn’t the Game Commission being considered for ownership of the entire parcel?
As with Fish and Boat, the Game Commission has a specific charge. It is tasked with managing the State’s wildlife, wildlife habitat and wildlife protection. The Game Commission has significant holdings across the Commonwealth in the form of State Game lands that are open to the public for a number of activities. On the surface, it would seem that the Commission would be very suitable for consideration as an owner. Yet, like all State agencies, they are focused on efforts that will enhance only their area of interest – in this case, wildlife. Game Commission representatives have stated they have no interest in reforestation of the already open ag lands because they wish to promote small game hunting. They do not wish to destroy that habitat in favor of improving the habitat for endangered species.
In addition, it should be noted that the State will retain ownership of several parcels of the 1800-acre parent tract. The State has not been willing to consider giving these parcels to the Game Commission.
- DCNR’s mission is to do exactly what you want to do. Why shouldn’t they own the land?
DCNR’s mission statement reads: “To maintain, improve and preserve state parks; to manage state forest lands to assure their long-term health, sustainability and economic use…and to administer grant and technical assistance programs that will benefit rivers conservation, trails and greenways, local recreation, regional heritage conservation and environmental education programs across Pennsylvania.” The Governor’s office decided not to include this land in the State’s inventory for a number of stated reasons. These include the small size of the parcel and the limits of their funding to support the State’s existing parks. However, they are greatly supportive of the canyon parcel being deeded to the local municipality while they provide grant funding and technical support.
- If they can’t support their own parks, how can DCNR provide Benner Township with grant money now and in the future?
Funding authorizations are a very complex menagerie. While the State provides the total budget for DCNR, the budget is divided into different categories. According to DCNR, the State has reduced the operating and maintenance budgets for the park system but has continued to provide funding for grant support.
- Benner Township can’t afford to maintain the canyon parcel. Why not let some other entity own it?
The Supervisors believe the Township can and should receive ownership of the canyon parcel under consideration. The Supervisors have not precluded any particular operational structure, though. The management study will aid in the direction we wish to pursue, with the overall goal being that the canyon receive the attention we all want to see. These potential operational structures include, but aren’t limited to:
- Partnerships with interest groups who have specific issues they want to address. Such groups include, the Boy Scouts of America, archaeological societies, historical societies, the Spring Creek Community, Fish and Boat, the Game Commission, hunting and fishing organizations, and natural heritage groups like the Audubon Society, etc. DCNR has committed to supporting the Township with grant funding for management and improvements that are consistent with the management plan and master plan.
- Third party management. There are several existing organizations that have the administrative infrastructure in place that could oversee the management plan developed. Some possibilities include the Western PA Conservancy and Northcentral PA Conservancy. There may be land trusts that would also be suitable for this task.
- Parks Authority. Benner Township is currently involved in a peer-to-peer study regarding the formation of a Nittany Valley Regional Park and Recreation Board. Similar to the existing Centre Region Park and Rec Board, the proposed board would have the authority to administer public park lands (including nature preserves) and raise funds to operate same.
- Creation of endowments.
- A combination of any of the above. We strongly believe that the community – which we see as much more inclusive than just Benner Township – has the desire to achieve the goals the Supervisors have outlined. Numerous groups have approached the Supervisors wanting to be active participants in maintaining and improving the habitats of this area. We welcome such desires and will gladly support the efforts of groups whose activities will aid in achieving those goals.
- We understand Benner Township wants to develop this land for commercial enterprises. Why?
Benner Township will not develop the canyon land for any such purpose. Additionally, we do not wish to see other parcels developed beyond where they are currently. To insure that the lands being conveyed to both Penn State and Benner Township retain their current character, the legislation will include the purpose of the land transfer and provide a stipulation that the lands must be retained in the natural state (in the case of the Benner parcel) and used solely for agricultural purposes (in the case of Penn State). Additionally, the legislation will require that the deeds include the same language with an additional stipulation that if the lands are used inappropriately or no longer desired to be retained for their intended use, ownership will revert back to the State.
To add to this, Benner Township and Penn State entered into a memorandum of understanding that reinforces these stipulations.
Even though these safeguards will be in place, Benner Township is also revising its Zoning Ordinance to limit the types of activities that will be permitted on these parcels.
- How do we know these lands won’t be developed in the future?
Part of the recently revised scope of Work document for the Master Plan / Management Plan study includes the development of a permanent conservation easement for all the lands. Benner Township has as part of its core desire conservation of the canyon for future generations, therefore a conservation easement would be acceptable and desirable. Penn State has recently expressed its willingness to also enter into a conservation easement for sensitive areas on the acreage proposed for the University.
- How does Benner Township plan for continuity of management as supervisors change?
The conveyance restrictions, deed restrictions and the ever mindful eye of the public will serve to insure that future supervisors cannot modify the terms of the land acquisition. As far as management, the Supervisors have held open the real possibility that the management of the Benner portion of this property may be turned over to a third party, who has demonstrable ability to implement the accepted recommendations of the Master and Management Plans.
- Why take pristine land for housing when many structures in Bellefonte and State College exist and could be developed for such use?
There is no agreement between the Supervisors and the County Commissioners to accept the County’s desire to create a substantial workforce housing development on this land. While Benner Township agrees in principle to the desire to create affordable housing stock, we have not been warm to the use of this particular portion of land for such. We have been clear to state that we want this segment of land to remain “open” and undeveloped.
- Why not make the entire area a state forest? Or another gameland?
The State establishes its own land acquisition strategies. For reasons cited in #11 above, the Game Commission is not considered a suitable owner.
- What local government body had the final action on this issue?
Benner Township had a limited say in the transaction, but like most things related to the State, political issues play an important part of the decision-making process. At the State level, departments argued over how the land should be divested, cabinet secretaries sparred against one another, and, as Centre Countians have witnessed, local legislators have also made demands. Benner Township recognizes that the State could as easily lease the lands under consideration to Penn State, without any public dialogue. It could also have decided to sell the land to the highest bidder, without restriction. The State could also decide to leave things as they are and retain the status quo although, we don’t believe the Department of Corrections would have the desire or funding sources to invest in the conservation of this land.
 Centre County web site http://www.co.centre.pa.us/planning/cultural.asp
 Centre County web site http://www.co.centre.pa.us/planning/natural_heritage_inventory.pdf
 PA Fish and Boat web site http://www.fish.state.pa.us/aboutpf.htm
 DCNR web site: http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/info/ataglance/fsexecutive.aspx