Joanne Tosti-Vasey, a local government leader in Centre County, PA, lives in the borough of Bellefonte (population 6,200) and has served on its council since 2016. She became council president in 2018, making her a member of every borough committee: finance, safety, parks and recreation, streets, building and property, water/sanitation, human resources, and environment/sustainability.
Her projects and achievements include increased access to Spring Creek, especially for people with disabilities; maximizing environmental sensitivity during the redevelopment of land where a historic hotel burned down; and supporting the creation of a kayak and canoe museum, slated to open in the near future.
Joanne is committed to a variety of causes. She serves as a board member for the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association, as chair of both the Spring Creek Watershed Commission and Centre County Advisory Council to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, and as vice president of Ni-Ta-Nee NOW, the Centre County chapter of the National Organization for Women.
We’ve edited our conversation with Joanne for length and clarity.
Why is water so important to the people of Bellefonte?
Joanne: There are a couple of reasons. Bellefonte has the “Big Spring,” which is one of the five largest natural springs in the state. All of our water comes from it, and it’s the cleanest water, probably anywhere in the country, and we want to keep it that way. Coca-Cola bottles it, and another company will soon be bottling it. A distillery in town wants to start bottling and flavoring it for public consumption. The borough owns the spring, so it is a revenue stream for us, and withdrawals must be negotiated with the borough. Another reason the people of Bellefonte care about water is that the weather is getting more extreme, and we see more issues with flooding and mitigation. Spring Creek runs through the middle of town, and we’ve got one of the best trout creeks in the state — or possibly the country. Fly fishing is a big attraction. It also serves as an Olympic training center for kayaking.
How does your work for civil rights inform your work on environmental issues?
Joanne: A lot of environmental issues are often civil rights issues, too, particularly with the placement of industries in communities of color or low-income communities. No matter where you live, you should have access to clean air and clean water, and you shouldn’t be discriminated against because you don’t have a voice in government.
Can you tell me about one of the projects you’re most proud of?
Joanne: The borough had acquired about 3 acres of land along Spring Creek, where a fire destroyed one of our historic hotels in 2007. The site was in a floodplain, so the borough raised the ground, installed a flood wall and built a promenade between the flood wall and the creek, with steps leading down to the water for anglers and kayakers. However, according to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, you can’t fish from the sidewalk because it’s too high and will kill fish, so the borough had posted signs saying “no fishing from the sidewalk, no exceptions.” I pointed out that this was probably illegal because it prevented access to the stream by young children and by people who are using a wheelchair or can’t get in the creek for health reasons. I was told that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I pointed out that I had been a member of the Advisory Council to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission for 19 years and knew exactly what I was talking about. Ultimately, someone using a wheelchair complained about not being able to get in the stream, so the council changed the signs to say “for accommodations contact the borough.” Then we ended up building a fishing pier at a contiguous park and, as of this spring, we have a handicap-accessible fishing pier that’s for children and people with disabilities. Looking back, I see that lack of knowledge about civil rights was a significant challenge. Education of the council and the borough managers was the thing that made the difference and allowed us to meet the needs of all of our residents.
Many communities are facing financial challenges. What’s one thing you’ve done in Bellefonte that you suggest others consider?
Joanne: We’ve got a person on staff who is an excellent grant writer and is excellent at finding resources to fund things that are needed.
What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced working on environmental issues, and what did you learn from that experience?
Joanne: Climate deniers are a big challenge in this line of work, but I’ve found that if you bring in the community and listen, you should be able to work out something. Everyone might not be happy, but at least people know that they’ve been heard. I believe in transparency and communication, no matter what you’re doing.
Can you tell me about one organization you’re partnering with and how they’re helping you?
Joanne: The Clearwater Conservancy is one of our key partners. They have a lot of expertise and connections with other organizations, like the county, Spring Creek Watershed Commission, other associations, students and the VISTA program. They helped the commission fund our administrative manager position and continue to handle our financial records. They also help with education and building environmental awareness through a program called Centred Outdoors.
What kind of life experiences have influenced your work?
Joanne: I grew up in Grafton, VA, 20 miles from a nuclear power plant and just across the river from Jamestown. I wasn’t particularly happy with that power plant then. I can’t remember if it was all the power lines crossing the James River or just that it was there. When I was a kid, I would go to 4-H camp and swim in the James. I remember you could see the bottom, and you could see the rocks, everything! By the time I became an employee at the camp in the early ’70s, we could no longer swim in the James, and we couldn’t even see the bottom. In 1986, I took a train trip across the country. We spent a full day at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford weapons production plant in Washington state, which is one of the most hazardous nuclear facilities in the nation. It was decommissioned in 1989 and has been the site of one of the most massive nuclear waste cleanup efforts in the world since then. A year and a half after our trip, I became ill and was eventually diagnosed with leukemia. Based on what I learned, I suspect — but can’t prove — that it was a result of my exposure to that plant. All of this impacted me, I guess.
Do you have a favorite inspirational source or quotation?
Joanne: I wrote my motivating phrase many years ago when we had to come up with our personal life theme during a course I took in college. Mine is: You can do whatever you want in your life so long as you don’t hurt anybody else.