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Eminent domain resolution gains some council support

July 10, 2002|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

The Hagerstown City Council moved one step closer Tuesday to adopting a resolution to use its power of eminent domain to forcibly take land to help Washington County Hospital move if it goes to a site within city limits.

In a meeting with a hospital search committee, the city also offered to give the hospital financial breaks on water, sewer and electricity if it chooses the city site, Mayor William M. Breichner said.

The hospital is one of the city's top five customers for water, sewer and electricity, Breichner said.

The city also has asked the state Office of Smart Growth to help provide other incentives to the hospital to choose the city site, he said.

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At Tuesday's City Council meeting, three council members - N. Linn Hendershot, Carol N. Moller and Kristin B. Aleshire - said they would support the eminent domain resolution suggested by Breichner.

They said they generally would not support the city using its eminent domain power to take land but would make an exception because of the importance of keeping the hospital in the city.

"It is a public safety issue," Aleshire said.

The council is scheduled to vote on the resolution at its July 23 meeting.

The city has not used its eminent domain power for at least 45 years and may never have used it, Breichner said.

Under eminent domain, a public agency takes land needed for a public project and pays the owner fair market value for the property. The owner can contest the attempt and take the matter to court.

Councilwoman Penny May Nigh said she cannot support the resolution because citizens do not know yet the location of the city site or how much property would be affected if the hospital was built there.

"It is like the cart before the horse," she said.

Nigh and other city officials would not identify the location of the city site or how many properties would be affected.

Asked if she would change her position once the details were made public, Nigh said, "I doubt it."

Nigh has to consider the perspective of residents whose homes might be taken if the city site was chosen, she said.

"I have got to look out for the people," she said.

Building a hospital at the city site would not affect any schools or churches, Breichner said. He would not state what properties or property types would be affected.

Councilman Lewis C. Metzner was absent from Tuesday's meeting.

One of the other two sites the Washington County Health System, the hospital's parent company, is considering has been identified as the 450-acre Allegheny Energy Friendship Technology Park, south of Hagerstown off Interstate 70. It previously was considered a possible site for the University of Maryland Hagers-town Education Center.

The hospital search committee has not recommended a site to the health system.

James P. Hamill, president and chief executive officer of the Washington County Health System, said Tuesday it would be "virtually impossible" for the search committee to consider the site the city recommends unless the council also offers to use its eminent domain power.

If the hospital is to be built in an urban setting, the system will want at least 13 acres of property, Hamill said. If it is proposed for undeveloped land, the system would want about 65 acres, he said.

Hamill announced in November that the system was considering building a new hospital.

After a preferred site is selected, the system can get a better handle on the estimated costs and determine whether it can afford a new hospital, Hamill said.

A decision on whether the system can afford a new hospital won't occur until next summer, Hamill said.

If the health system's board of directors votes to move forward with the project, construction could begin in fall 2003, Hamill said.

A new hospital would be more efficient, address space constraints and allow the health system to implement new medical technology and equipment, Hamill said.

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