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Commissioners defend land swap

December 01, 2000

Commissioners defend land swap



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A citizen activist told The Berkeley County Commission Thursday a land swap near Spring Mills Road it approved with a local developer this fall was done improperly.

In a sometimes-heated discussion, county officials vehemently defended their actions in a half-hour exchange.

The argument centered on the swap of 10 acres owned by the county near Potomack Intermediate School adjacent to W.Va. 11 with 27 nearby acres owned by developer Bruce Van Wyck.

One full-size and two smaller soccer fields are on the 10 acres, which Van Wyck wants to use as part of an industrial park. The 27 acres are undeveloped, but they give the county the ability to develop six full-size soccer fields, county parks and recreation officials said. Van Wyck will pay some costs of developing them.

Self-described "activist" Mike Garson, who lives in the nearby Spring Mills housing complex, said neither piece of property was independently appraised to assess the value. He also said he was not notified of the meeting this fall to approve the swap. He wanted to raise issues about it.

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"There appears to be a reluctance to appraise these properties,' Garson said. "That gives the appearance of something going on."

He said the county might have gotten a good or bad deal. No one will know without an appraisal. He also said the 10 acres should have been declared surplus and put up for bid.

"I've talked to some legal people who say you couldn't do this," Garson said.

The commissioners asked Sheriff Ron Jones to provide extra security for that part of the meeting where Garson spoke, Jones said. Commissioner Robert Burkhart said nothing illegal or improper had occurred.

"I have no misgivings at all," Burkhart said. The land exchange was discussed at a public meeting Garson could have attended. Burkhart said it is a good deal to increase parks land.

He was backed in that contention by officials of the Martinsburg/Berkeley County Parks and Recreation Board.

"We wanted to have better property down there," Scott Roach, president of the board, told the commissioners. "It was our feeling we were getting a very good deal."

He added: "I don't make any apologies for it."

"There can be no doubt this was done to the letter of the law," said a visibly emotional Norwood Bentley III, the commissioners' attorney. He said more than money played a part in considering the land swap.

"The value of the property was not a dollar value," he said. "It had to do with the benefit of this property to this county."

Commissioner John Wright said at the meeting Thursday he had "misgivings" about the deal and had voted against it when it was approved. The land was not declared surplus and put up for bid - as Garson said it should have been - but was deeded to Martinsburg, which swapped it with Van Wyck.

"I think it was all done legally, but it was done in an unorthodox manner," Wright said in an interview following the meeting. "It bothered me that it was done in a different way than I was used to."

Garson insisted an appraisal could erase any doubt the matter was done property. "An appraisal doesn't hurt anything," he said. "It brings certainty."

Although Garson has turned his documents over to an attorney, he is uncertain what he might do next, he said.

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