Controversy surrounds purchase of land for new elementary school
Site of a new school that will be built near Hagers Crossing Drive. (By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer / September 22, 2012)
Late last year, shortly after they revealed their choice to the Washington County Board of Commissioners in a closed-door meeting, they discovered that the property the committee had in closed session urged the commissioners to buy, had been bought just weeks before by a privately owned development company.
On Friday, the development company sold that 16.5-acre property to the county government for nearly $1.6 million — three times what the firm had paid last November.
How did it happen that the developer purchased the very property that was the county’s top choice on a confidential list of almost two dozen potential sites?
And what justifies the county paying roughly $96,000 an acre while many of its citizens are struggling financially from a recession that so badly depressed the value of their homes that they couldn’t sell them, even for what they’d paid just a few years ago?
Opinions, from the commissioners to the person on the street, vary widely.
“If the county commissioners approve the contract to buy a piece of land for three times what it was paid for a year ago, each and every one of them should be booted out of office, and on their way out, they should send a letter of apology to every single taxpayer in Hagerstown and the state of Maryland,” said an anonymous caller, from the city’s Fountainhead area, on the newspaper’s Mail Call phone line last week.
Asked about that Thursday, the three commissioners who voted in favor of purchasing the land and the two commissioners who voted against it all spoke strongly in support of their actions.
“In all reality, as far as I’m concerned, as one of the three commissioners that voted for it, we’re saving the taxpayers between a million and-a-half and two million (dollars) in overall costs,” Commissioner John Barr said. He said the overall expense of using the next-best property would have cost that much more.
Commissioners President Terry Baker said his vote against the deal was a stand to protect the taxpayers. What the development firm paid for the land was close to its assessment value, and the county paid the firm three times that, Baker said.
“I represent my Washington County citizens and I promised the citizens that I would be fiscally responsible,” Baker said. “Three times the assessment value is not being fiscally responsible.”
This is the story of what happened behind the scenes that some say led to unbelievable coincidence, good fortune for a business and big savings for the taxpayers, and that others say is born of greed and loose spending of public dollars.
The site and a price
Last year, four organizations — a Washington County governmental committee, the Maryland State Department of Assessments, a bank and a business partnership — all acting independently, it seemed, agreed on one thing: The undeveloped 16.5-acre property in a residential community behind a shopping center in Hagerstown’s West End, was worth no more than $525,000.
The governmental committee was formed in the summer of 2010 after the Washington County Board of Education asked the commissioners for help finding land on which to build a West City elementary school. The School Board said the new school was needed to replace the decades-old Winter Street and Conococheague elementary schools.
Each of the committee’s 11 members was a key employee in engineering, planning and other departments of either the county government, the city government or the school system. They worked in confidence, using a detailed system the county recently had adopted to provide a thorough analysis of sites needed for public services, according to county Public Works Director Joe Kroboth.
Kroboth, who was the committee’s chairman, said schools officials listed their basic needs for the new school site. These included that it be at least 15 acres, be “relatively close” to housing developments, and be in a place where adequate infrastructure — such as utilities and streets — could be made available, he said.
Focusing on locations most practical for neighborhoods in which children now attend Winter Street and Conococheague, the committee identified 22 potential sites. Each was inspected, evaluated for a wide range of criteria from topography to shape to zoning and, after schools officials cut the sites to the five they thought best, a more intensive study began of each of them.
In their 77-page final report, the committee members unanimously recommended purchase of Site 19, the 16.5-acre field in the Hager’s Crossing housing development behind the Centre at Hagerstown shopping center on the city’s western fringe.