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North Huntingdon's easy-to-develop land 'dwindling'

| Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

In North Huntingdon, where more than 1,000 new homes have been built during the past decade, the easy-to-develop land isn't gone yet, “but it's dwindling,” township planning director Andrew Blenko said.

“We certainly haven't seen our last development. We're not done,” said Blenko, who serves as township engineer.

Many acres of township land remain undeveloped, but some of it is difficult to develop, and some is used for agriculture.

Since 2000, the township has issued about 1,500 permits for single-family homes. New home construction peaked in 2003 with 176 building permits, Blenko said. Permit numbers began to decline in 2007.

In 2012, building permits were issued for 76 single-family homes, he said.

Census data reflects the building boom, listing the township's population in 2010 at 30,609, an increase from 29,123 in the year 2000.

Blenko attributes fluctuations in the number of building permits during the past decade in part to the recession.

“I think people have had a hard time getting financing,” he said. “I think people have been hesitant to jump up into a bigger home, a more expensive home.”

The township has about two dozen housing developments. The largest are Lincoln Hills with 279 lots, four of them open, and Willow Estates with 211 lots, 64 of them open.

Blenko presented the figures last week to Norwin School Board as an update on the township's development.

“We are very fortunate to have stability and growth in our township,” superintendent William Kerr said.

Norwin School District is composed of North Huntingdon, Irwin, North Irwin and small portions of White Oak and South Versailles.

An idea for a residential development has been pitched for an area along Barnes Lake Road near Woodridge Estates, Blenko said, but there are no formal plans.

Donato Pasquarelli of Pasquarelli Property Management said the concept is about three months from presentation to the planning commission.

“We're looking at about a 160-new-home development,” said Pasquarelli, who was the developer of Woodridge Estates.

There's still open land in the township, but some of it, particularly along Route 993, is steep and lacks public sewers, Blenko said.

“It represents such a huge obstacle to try and come in to create lots that are buildable,” he said. “That's not to say they'll never develop.”

Historically in the township, agricultural land has been turned into housing plans. Farm land, with its rolling hills, makes for easy development, Blenko said.

“There are certainly still some areas in the township where development would be easy, feasible, easily accomplished,” Blenko said. “But most of the areas are farms where it's agricultural land that's still being farmed. The people who own it are not interested, at least at this time, in turning it into a housing plan.”

Bob Shuster of RWS Custom Homes is the township's only builder-developer, Blenko said, lauding the “cohesive plan” in his work. Other developments have a separate developer and builder.

Shuster's company provided Lincoln Hills, Victoria Estates, Franklin Farms and Knights Landing housing developments, among others. Shuster, a lifelong North Huntingdon resident, estimates the company has built thousands of homes in the township.

Future residential development is crucial, he said, in light of school district costs, including pensions.

Lincoln Hills, the township's largest housing plan, wasn't easy to develop, Shuster said.

Tough land can be developed, he said, but it comes at a cost. Developers also face regulations from the state Department of Environmental Protection and PennDOT, he said.

“If you're willing to move the dirt and do the work, it can be done,” Shuster said. “(It's) not cheap, but it can be done.”

Rossilynne Skena is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6646 or rskena@tribweb.com.

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