Preservation issues crop up in country

June 25, 1998

Bob Maginnis

According to a story in Tuesday's editions of The Herald-Mail newspapers, only 11 percent of Washington County's farmland is protected from development from some kind of easement.

Why should you care? Because every farm that becomes a housing development sends more children to the local school system, and the real estate taxes on the average home (even a new one) don't cover that cost.

Why do farmers want to develop their beautiful land? Because many of their children don't want to work the land, and because the money that comes from a sale will provide them with a retirement income.


Why don't they sell to other farmers? They could, but developers can pay more, and let's face it, how many of us would choose to take less if we could get more?

Those property owners need some incentive to keep farming the land, and this county had better work out something before MARC train service is extended to Frederick, when those who'd like to live in the country will figure out that they can get off the train there and cut their housing costs significantly, just by traveling west over South Mountain. This is probably Washington County's last shot at addressing this issue before the next wave of development hits.

And speaking of preservation, I got a call this week from Hagerstown Councilman Wally McClure, who said he'd like to see the city purchase the site of the Hagerstown Roundhouse, if the state or federal government would accept the liability for any pollution discovered there.

"I am not interested in assuming the environmental liability," McClure said, adding that if something nasty turned up on the property, "We would indebt the citizens forever."

McClure said if that issue could be solved, he would favor purchasing the poperty - CSX Corp. has set a July 3 deadline for someone to accept liability and pony up $500,000 - and leasing the roundhouse portion for $1 a year to the volunteer group that's worked to try to preserve it.

The other portion - including existing buildings on the site - could become a business park, with space available as an "incubator" for new companies, McClure said.

McClure says his "sister city" newspaper program turned up a number of cities working with historic structures, some with more success than others.

For those who missed the start of that program, it involved the five councilmembers and the mayor and a number of city department heads reading newspaper from areas similar in size to Hagerstown.

In those areas, like Portsmouth, N.H., which have roundhouse properties they're trying to save and re-use, McClure said part of the problem is that they're often surrounded by active rail lines, which would have to be bridged, which isn't cheap.

Another thing that many of the towns the group observed have in common in Hagerstown is the problem of what to do with large, old hotels in the center of town, like Hagerstown's Baldwin House.

In Clarksburg, W.Va., McClure said, the city ended up demolishing its old hotel for $58,000, which makes him question the six-figure estimates talked about here for the same job.

McClure says the city is talking again with Don Bowman, the local trucking magnate, who once proposed to renovate the Baldwin House into offices, but lost out to a proposal (which later fell apart) to make it an upscale apartment building.

If Bowman can't make the numbers work, McClure said, it's time to call in the wrecking crews.

Part of the problem with working on older properties is the uncertainty, McClure said. A developer who builds something new on the periphery of the city can figure out fairly accurately what his or her costs will be. When you begin renovating an old building, you have no idea what you're going to find when you open up a wall.

In looking at places like York and Erie, Pa., there's a philosophy at work, McClure says, that holds that if the city officials don't put new things downtown, they will continue to watch the people - and the dollars they might spend - head to the areas on the fringe.

Now that Del. John Donoghue, D-Hagerstown, has filed for re-election, the key question is: When will former Del. Paul Muldowney announce his intentions? Muldowney, who recently served on the Washington County Gaming Commission, has been mulling a try to unseat Donoghue for a variety of reasons.

Earlier this year I wrote that Muldowney ought to try for a County Commissioner seat, but I didn't consider how his membership on the county board would affect any county requests to the delegation. Some delegaton members might take pleasure in saying no to Muldowney, but they'd do so knowing that he would not accept defeat quietly. I await his decisions - on whether to run and if so for which office - with great interest.

Bob Maginnis is opinion page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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