By ANDREW SCHOTZ and C.J. LOVELACE
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9:17 PM EST, November 13, 2012
The Hagerstown City Council tentatively agreed Tuesday to sell a Willard Street property once used by the U.S. Army Reserve for $625,000 to Washington County for a senior citizens center.
The council voted 4-0 to introduce an ordinance to sell the property, which the city owns. Councilwoman Ashley C. Haywood was absent.
The city is scheduled to formally adopt the ordinance on Dec. 4 — one week after the new mayor and city council take office.
“It’s much more than just selling a piece of property,” outgoing city Councilman Forrest Easton said during the meeting at City Hall. “I think it’s great that the city can assist the county in saving millions of dollars in locating the senior center in our core, instead of out on Robinwood Drive.”
For months, the county was moving toward building a senior citizens’ center on the Hagerstown Community College campus. That plan fell apart this month amid concerns about rising costs. The Reserve building is seen as a less expensive option.
The county plans to use a federal Community Development Block Grant to purchase the property from the city. The county has until Dec. 31 to commit the funding for the sale before the money is no longer available, County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said.
Murray said CDBG funding lets the county use more money to upgrade the property and add services.
Easton, who lives near the property, said it’s a positive thing for the neighborhood, as well. The property has sat idle for several years.
“To me, I see it as a win-win-win all around,” Easton said. “The city of Hagerstown was lucky enough to get a large piece of property free of charge from the feds, who are no longer using it. It’s been empty for three years.”
The county has been promised $677,124 in CDBG money, according to Cindy Stone, the director of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development’s Office of Community Programs, which administers the grant.
When an earlier deadline to use the money passed, the county received an extension until Dec. 31, Stone wrote in an email.
The money was intended to help with the construction of a senior center, but land acquisition also is an acceptable use, she wrote.
The former Reserve building and the 4.6 acres upon which it sits has been assessed at $2.03 million, according to the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation.
The land alone has been assessed at $684,000.
Murray said the purchase price of $625,000 is roughly in line with the value of the land without the building, plus closing costs.
“One could say the county is getting a good deal,” Easton said. “However, we’re also assisting in keeping the senior center close to where the majority of the seniors are.”
The city requires a 20-day period between tentative approval and final approval of a land transaction.
The commissioners are expected to formally vote on the purchase on Nov. 27.
Murray said the transaction will be contingent on approval from the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals, a requirement any time a community center is proposed.
The Board of Zoning Appeals Board would need to grant a special exception for the proposed use at the site, City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said Tuesday. If the sale is approved by both elected bodies, the appeals board meeting would take place sometime in December, he said.
Incoming city council members Donald F. Munson and Penny M. Nigh attended both meetings Tuesday.
In an interview after the commissioners meeting, Munson said he’d vote for the sale of the former Reserve building to the county when it comes up.
“The senior center issue is old and needs to be resolved,” he said.
Nigh was skeptical. She said an important issue not being addressed is a swimming pool, which senior citizens need either at the center or through another arrangement. The former Reserve building doesn’t have a pool.
Addressing concerns that the sale is a “rush job” by the current city council before it leaves office, Councilman Lewis C. Metzner, who was re-elected, said the sale would illustrate the goodwill fostered between city and county leaders over the past three-plus years.
The uncertainty of the real estate market and ensuring that the land remains in use for city and county residents were other key factors to the city council’s support of the proposed sale.
In an informal vote Tuesday afternoon, four of the five county commissioners tentatively agreed to pursue buying the former Reserve property.
Terry L. Baker, the president of the commissioners, wanted to wait. He said senior citizens who would use the center haven’t had a chance to comment on the newest plan.
A Washington County Commission on Aging property committee is scheduled to meet Thursday to talk about the former Reserve building.
At the start of the commissioners’ meeting, Baker alleged that it hadn’t been properly advertised and was illegal.
The commissioners weren’t scheduled to meet on Tuesday, but the plan changed. The county sent out a news release about the meeting on Monday.
County Attorney John M. Martirano said the county gave “reasonable” notice for a meeting that was quickly scheduled to address a developing issue.
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