Former Washington County Commissioner Ronald Bowers is leading a push for a broader and more transparent approach to developing a high-tech business park at Mount Aetna Farms.
In an interview with The Herald-Mail Thursday morning and a presentation to Citizens for the Protection of Washington County Thursday night, Bowers criticized the county for rushing into an agreement that doesn’t include all of the major players, and presented his own concept for a “LifeTech Business Park” between Meritus Medical Center and Hagerstown Community College.
“I have gotten to the point with what’s happening, I can’t sit back and not speak out anymore,” said Bowers, who is on the county’s Economic Development Commission.
The development organization CHIEF bought 173 acres of land between the hospital and college in June 2011, with plans to promote the property to biotechnology and other high-tech companies.
Meanwhile, Washington County is preparing to open access to the property with a $9.3 million extension of Yale Drive to Hagerstown Community College. Two weeks ago, the Board of County Commissioners approved an agreement with CHIEF and Meritus dividing responsibilities for that project.
In an email announcement about Thursday’s meeting, James Laird, president of Citizens for the Protection of Washington County, said critics doubt the road project will lead to high-paying jobs or reduce traffic congestion, and are concerned CHIEF is making too many of the decisions while leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.
Bowers framed his position as a call for more transparency from CHIEF.
“This is the biggest thing in Washington County in the 21st century,” he said. “Let’s treat it that way.”
CHIEF President Gregory Snook did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Among other things, Bowers called for CHIEF, formally known as the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation, to be up front about its membership. He noted there is overlap between the boards of CHIEF and Hagerstown Community College.
Under the Yale Drive agreement, CHIEF and Meritus will provide land for roads and stormwater management. CHIEF will pay to design and engineer the road, while the county will contribute up to that same amount toward a regional stormwater management pond. The county will pay for the road construction.
Bowers said the county is contributing work that developers normally are expected to do themselves.
“Since (the county’s) people are doing the major work, with the private developer, is that going to be offered to other private developers?” Bowers asked.
Washington County Public Works Director Joseph Kroboth III said the requirements Bowers referred to — an owner-submitted concept plan, traffic study and basic road design — are required by the county once a private development project is submitted to the county Division of Plan Review and Permitting.
“There is no private development project submitted for approval or for consideration at this point in time,” Kroboth said. “The project being considered is a public, Capital Improvement Program project.”
Bowers argued that instead of approving an agreement only for Yale Drive, the county should have sought an agreement on the full business park development that includes other major parties. He said such an agreement should include Hagerstown Community College, where the Yale Drive extension is to end; Austin Abraham, who owns the land north of Mount Aetna Farms; and Rosewood Investments LLC, the developer of the land between Mount Aetna Farms and Robinwood Drive.
“Let’s deal with this in a way that there becomes a land bank and we work out a way how everybody gets their money back, and develop this,” Bowers said.
Under that broader agreement, Bowers said, he thinks CHIEF should donate some of the land to the county for a future high-tech high school in exchange for the county’s construction of roads through the area.
He questioned the rush to approve an agreement on Yale Drive alone, noting the memorandum’s statement that “time is of the essence.”
“Any time something tells me ‘time is of the essence,’ I get nervous,” Bowers said.
Kroboth said the time pressure for that project was due to the limited time frame for using federal funds the county had obtained for the Yale Drive extension through the Appalachian Regional Commission. To move ahead with that project, the county needed to obtain right of way from CHIEF and Meritus, he said.
Kroboth said HCC, Abraham and Rosewood Investments were not included in that agreement because “they were not party to the issues that were at hand.”