Plans to break ground for Living Treasures Safari Resort in Liberty Township have been going slower than the owner would like, but construction is finally on the horizon.
“The most common question I get when I see people out around the community is, “What’s taking so long?” said Adam Guiher, who lives near the state Route 258 property with his wife and their daughter.
Guiher, who also owns Living Treasures in Slippery Rock Township, Lawrence County, had been hoping to start the building process this past fall. He expects work to start late summer or early fall on the 143-acre site at 2264 Mercer-Butler Pike, with holiday events planned for the Christmas season.
The first phase will feature a safari bus tour and walk-up exhibits. He expects to initially have about 400 animals of all sizes and 80 to 90 species , and he recently shared some details about what it has taken to make his dream become reality.
He bought the other park in 2005 from his father, and since then has learned a lot about designing, developing and managing such a facility. He realized he still needed to familiarize himself with the processes of commercial development and permitting.
“For years I have been dreaming of a large acreage facility that would allow us to grow and improve on our goals of raising rare and endangered species and operating what would be viewed as a world class facility with significant educational and interactive experiences for our region,” Guiher said via email.
The Liberty Township site stood out after he looked more than a dozen properties over a two-year period, and he set out in spring 2014 to work with public officials on securing the necessary permits and approvals.
There were some “tough negotiations” with the property owner at the time. Once the land was under contract, Guiher knew that was essentially just the beginning of a long journey.
Several public hearings were held later that year, with some residents in favor of the project, and others against it. Guiher answered questions for hours on a number of topics – his qualifications, fencing and barriers, noise levels, and more.
The township supervisors ultimately approved the park’s conditional use permit for “large land area commercial recreation developments,” which included 25 conditions that must be met.
The environmental permitting process was next, which required approvals from the Mercer County Conservation District, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers because of wetlands and waterways on the property.
A wetland study was completed, followed by a study to look for the King Rail bird during their June breeding season in 2015. Guiher also had to hire biologists to do a plant study during the August blooming season to search for endangered plants like Bog Goldenrod and the Virginia Bunchflower.
The Pennsylvania Museums Coalition ordered an archaeological study, and PennDOT needed a traffic study for Route 258 and the intersection of Routes 208 and 258 in order to approve a highway occupancy permit.
Peak-time traffic at the other park was also studied, and he needs a permit from the Mercer County Planning Commission.
“Luckily every one of our studies had positive outcomes for our project, which put us in the position to formally submit our joint permit application in September of 2015,” Guiher said.
The DEP returned to Guiher with a “laundry list of items” to address, including a manure management plan and extensive details about the other properties he had considered.
He submitted that information in November, and received notice in December that the DEP permit application was accepted as complete. That led to a technical review and a 60-day public comment period for the wetlands and waterways permit application. No comments against the project were submitted, he said.
He’s been waiting patiently the past few months for the environmental approvals to come through, which started happening in May with the OK from the Army Corps, Conservation District and verbal confirmation that the DEP is preparing to approve the wetlands and waterways permit.
Guiher has heard that the Mercer County Planning Commission is expected to give their approval soon, but he said he’s been surprised at how long that has taken. He submitted the application in September, and the Commission has since noted that a lot consolidation would be required – that is moving forward.
Once all permits are in hand, Living Treasures will submit individual building permit applications that will need to be approved by the local building inspector and township officials. The township must also approved the lot consolidation.
When all of those boxes are checked, major construction can begin, Guiher said, noting that his explanation is the “short version” of the commercial development permitting process.
That process has taken more than a year and has cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollar in fees for studies, permit applications, surveying and other requirements.
“I have definitely learned some lessons through this,” Guiher said, adding that he anticipates no further delays.
Living Treasures will have to transfer permits related to the animals to the new site. They already hold the necessary permits and licenses through the USDA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
Those agencies will conduct site visits and “surprise inspections” at the park, which Guiher said is being built to all animal housing specifications set by the Zoological Association of America and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. They are pursuing an accreditation through the ZAA.
Because the permitting process took so long, the only site work completed so far has been planning, cleanup and tree planting. Living Treasures has planted more than 400 trees including spruce trees that will act as a buffer as required by zoning regulations.
They have updated plans for 14 buildings that total about 40,000 square feet for the first phase of project. Guiher designed the buildings with the help of his contractor, and engineers and architects, who are reviewing the plans.
There will be about 40,000 feet of fencing that includes 10-foot tall woven wire perimeter fence, heavy-duty cable, and welded steel fencing for rhino containment. The Safari trail within the park and other infrastructure plans are being finalized.
Guiher has visited about 100 zoological facilities all over the world in recent years, taking photos and notes along the way. He’s working with Living Treasures’ zoo veterinarian and dozens of other experts to ensure things are done right.
“We are proud to say that this safari park is going to set many new standards in the zoological industry for space provided to animals and the care they receive,” he said.
The safari buses will travel through the different exhibits. It will last 1 to 1½ hours and cover 2.4 miles of scenic trail through wooded areas and fields, taking visitors past at least five man-made ponds.
Those areas will have species from five sections representing North America, South America, Eurasia and two African regions. Some of the animals will include white rhinos, ostriches, zebras, elk, bison and tapirs.
Several walk-up exhibits, feeding stations and other activities will be located near the main entrance, where visitors will wait for the buses. The park will be home to giraffes, toucans, bald eagles, a large barnyard exhibit, the state’s largest herd of reindeer, and more, Guiher said.
Some of the animals will be moved from the Lawrence County park so they can live in larger areas with bigger herds in the most natural setting possible. New habitats will be built at the Lawrence County park to accommodate new species best suited for that location.
It will also continue to be home to many young animals that need specialty care, like a juvenile giraffe that’s not ready to meet the adult herd, he said.
Guiher wants to develop the two parks to become among the most educational facilities in the United States. It’s his hope to help people love and respect animals and understand the man-made challenges many of the species face.
“There has been a growing disconnect between the general public and wildlife, which is very apparent to those of us who work around both,” he said.
They feel the best solution is to create fun, family experiences that promote learning. Many area residents have never seen nor heard of some of Living Treasures’ endangered species – like the bongo and Père David’s deer – and some visitors are surprised to learn that a reindeer is a real animal.
Living Treasures is planning a large-scale Christmas event for its new park in November and December with all of Santa’s reindeer, a live nativity with camels, donkeys and sheep, and more.
Plans for the park beyond the first phase include zip-line and adventure park courses for all ages, which will be the first of its kind in the area, he said.
“We are excited for the day to come that we can share it with the community,” Guiher said.