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Rockview land transfer lacked public input

by Kerry A. Benninghoff

Much has been said about the Rockview state prison land deal. Most of the comments and contacts I have received expressed concern about the anticipated owner, not the overall proposal. The concerns were based on procedural―not substantive―grounds.

Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, originally introduced Senate Bill 740, a measure that would divest several local parcels of state land. The bill was approved in the Senate and, upon entering the House, was sent to the House State Government Committee for consideration. Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Lock Haven, offered an amendment that included the Rockview state prison land deal.

Local residents raised concerns about the proposed owner of the land. I must admit that I, too, have not been very supportive of the deal. I believe the lack of community support stems from the less-than-open process and lack of public input prior to the designation of the future owner of the land. This is the reason behind my own personal concerns. 

Prior to my appointment to the House State Government Committee, I spent several years pushing that body to change the process by which the state divests taxpayer assets, including land. In the Rockview land deal, interested buyers saw land they desired and set forth pursuing it. That’s fair enough; they have every right to do so.

Unfortunately, the land divestiture “process” quietly moved forward, not encouraging any other interested party to pursue the land. The public was left in the dark about the potential transfer of this land to new ownership. Thus, taxpayers―who are the current owners of the land―did not have ample opportunity to provide input about how to divest the land, what the best use for it would be or how to maximize the public’s return on the sale. In the interim, the pursuer became the preconceived owner.

The Department of General Services, which is the state agency that handles most land transfers, says the process is fine. However, as Hanna stated in a recent article, “the deck became stacked” in favor of one entity over any other.

I believe this is wrong. The existing process prohibited any public consideration for the best use of the land.  It also failed to take into consideration a more comprehensive plan with adjacent properties within the community.

During the House State Government Committee meeting, I raised objections to Hanna’s amendment and questioned the timing of the proposal. Despite those concerns, the bill was successfully amended.

There were only four of us on the committee who voted against Hanna’s amendment. Ironically, the Democratic chairwoman of the committee voted with me while the Republican chairman supported Hanna’s amendment. If nothing else, at least partisanship apparently played no role in the votes!

I also planned to offer an amendment to Corman’s bill when it came before the House State Government Committee. My amendment would have sold the land to the Pennsylvania Game Commission for twice the amount Penn State will pay and would have allowed Penn State to utilize the land for its desired agricultural research and study. Additionally, the PGC would have contributed payments in lieu of taxes on the property and provided the conservation expertise and law enforcement powers necessary to protect and preserve this property.

I believed my amendment was a win-win proposal. Unfortunately, the “process” worked against my amendment. Hanna’s measure was considered first. Under committee rules, I was able to speak about Hanna’s proposal but not compare and contrast it with the amendment I planned to offer.

Following approval of Hanna’s measure, my amendment became a moot point. It did not help that the committee needed to “vacate” the meeting room due to time constraints, leaving little time for consideration of additional amendments. So much for choice!

In addition, members generally defer to the legislator in whose district the land resides. Generally, if the member from that district has no objections, other members will support the bill or amendment. I must admit the land involved in the Rockview land deal is in Hanna’s district. It is in a county I represent and almost completely surrounds my district. However, from a “fraternal view,” it is still not in my district.
The governor and his administration are very supportive of this transfer. It has become very obvious this transfer is going to occur, in spite of my―or anyone else’s―objections.

When the bill came to the House floor for a vote, I offered several amendments in an attempt to make this transfer more acceptable. One of my amendments would specifically prohibit the application of any sludge on this property. I introduced this with hopes of protecting the pristine waterway that lies within the canyon. 

Additionally, I negotiated an extension of the original 35-year memorandum of understanding between the PGC and university. Under my amendment, the agreement would extend in perpetuity. I believe it is very important to provide access to hikers, sportsmen and others for future generations beyond 35 years and prevent the potential development or sale of this land.

We will have to trust that the easements, covenants and other safeguards that we added to this legislation will be in the best interest of the public. While these negotiated compromises are not my preference, that is the “process” in which these land transfers are currently done. In the end, I believe, it is better to get half a loaf instead of no loaf at all.

Republican Kerry A. Benninghoff is the state representative for the 171st District. .


Thanks for trying/what can we do?

What should average folks/citizens/people do to make sure it is preserved and open to the public as much as possible?

Rockview Lands

I agree with all that Representative Benninghoff wrote in his article, but there is far more that was omitted. Here is another perspective and opinion from a local resident who attended most meetings and testified before the House State Government Committee.

The Rockview lands were purchased by all taxpayers and they are public lands. Section, Article 1, Section 27, of the Pennsylvania Constitution clearly states that "Pennsylvania natural resource lands are to be protected and conserved for the benefit of all the people." A significant portion of the Rockview lands called the Spring Creek Canyon are designated by Centre County and Pennsylvania as natural resource lands requiring that protection. See the Pennsylvania and Centre County Natural Heritage Inventories (1991, updated 2002 at the Centre County website). There are only two state conservation agencies tasked and resourced with this responsibility, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). And the State Game Commission.
After Interstate 99 separated this portion of the Rockview lands from the remainder of the penitentiary property, the Penn State administration lobbied behind closed doors in Harrisburg and solicited the support of Governor Rendell, Representative Mike Hanna, and the Secretary of the DCNR, Michael DiBerardinis, to obtain this public property for a pittance of their value and chiefly to expand the College of Agriculture. The DCNR advised they did not want this land. The game commission said they did want the land but were effectively told it was a done deal and to stay out of the way. The former county commissioners went along with the done deal, wink, wink.


<><>Penn State and Benner Township with the support of Representative Mike Hanna signed a memorandum of agreement for the distribution of this public property. They did not hold the required public meeting or post a public notice. The commonwealth’s Sunshine and Open Meeting Laws were conspicuously absent. <>

Only after the deal was set, was the public advised. There was no prior public input.
Simultaneously in a directly related matter, Penn State’s 30 year lease for about 950 acres of Gamelands 176 known as Compartment C (Toftrees) expired. When the United States Fish and Wildlife Service discovered that Penn State had used that land to spray effluent and ruined the game lands without permission of the USFWS. The USFWS refused to approve renewal of the lease. Instead they required $8.2 million compensation to be spent to purchase comparable replacement land within 60 miles of State College. The Rockview lands were considered comparable property and the game commission offered twice the per acre price. State game lands are purchased exclusively by hunting licenses, fees, and products but are open to many regulated public uses besides hunting.
Once the back room land transfer deal was made public, practically all Centre County conservation, preservation, and sportsmen’s organizations (collectively referred to as the Spring Creek Canyon Alliance) representing thousands of members explained for several years, in public meetings, that the Rockview public land at issue, including the Spring Creek Canyon, is a state treasure requiring special protection and management by a state conservation agency with the mission and resources to do so. Senator Jake Corman held a public meeting in the summer of 2007 – There was overwhelming objection to the land transfer, not a single member of the attending public supported the transfer to Penn State. Senator Corman remained silent.
The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy demonstrated the requirement to conserve the Rockview lands by respected professional study paid for by the DCNR. When the conservancy’s findings did not support the Penn State intention for this land the conservancy was dismissed and a private environmental study group, “provided better direction,” was commissioned to prepare another study. Those results are pending.
Those who tally letters, emails, and telephone calls to elected government officials report that the public objects to the land transfer to Penn State 3 to 1. That number is also reflected in the on-going CDT on-line poll with about 1,000 votes cast – 3 to 1 opposed.

<>What part of all this is not clear to Representatives Hanna and Conklin, Senator Corman, and the Centre County commissioners all of whom refuse to support their county planning commission on this issue (See the Natural Heritage Inventories cited above).


Aside from the land transfer, there is a much more important issue here. Who do our elected representatives think they work for? It is clear that Hanna thinks he works for Penn State, he as much as said so to the CDT. Do they work for the legislator’s fraternal system Benninghoff mentions? They surely are not working for us. We can make it crystal clear who they do work for in November.


<><><><>What can you do now? Attend the Spring Creek Canyon Alliance public meeting, Patton Township Municipal Building, 7 PM, Wednesday, July 30th and the Senator Jake Corman sponsored public meeting, time, date, and place to be announced. This is not a done deal until SB 740 is voted on.


<>Don Gordon
Patton Township




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