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Town braces for growth in '06

January 12, 2006|by DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

daniels@herald-mail.com

As 2006 gets under way, town officials in Hancock are hoping to embrace developers with one hand and keep them at arms length with the other.

Hancock Town Manager David Smith said he believes the town is well positioned to do both, and maintain the quality of life to which residents have long been accustomed, due to a series of initiatives and changes put into place over the last year.

"Nobody's ever a 10, but I'd say in the last year we've gone from a five to maybe a seven or an eight," he said. "One of the biggest things you don't want to lose is the quality of your town. Part of that is keeping your parks, they're a tremendous asset.

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One of the key changes, he said, was the first increase in water and sewer connection fees since the mid-1970s.

The fees, which Smith said had stood at $500 for water and $750 for sewer since about 1974, were increased to $5,000 each in the summer of 2005.

The idea for the increase, he said, was to ensure developers and builders pay for the cost of infrastructure improvements needed to accommodate them, rather than shifting the cost to existing homeowners.

"Growth is going to be right there at the top, and it should be, and with the growth comes the need for additional resources," he said. "We want to see growth happen, but we want to see it done in a responsible way so we don't have the negative consequences of it 10, 15, 20 years down the road."

In addition, the town's planning commission is gearing up to work with the state planning department to develop a set of zoning ordinances to regulate what can go where in town. The codes will replace the town's practice of enacting site-specific ordinances as developers apply for specific projects.

Smith said that with an increasing number of residential developments under way or being planned in town, including Mountainview Estates off Pennsylvania Avenue and pending plans for the redevelopment of Vista Village, Hancock will be better positioned to market its downtown area and its industrial park to the business community.

Mayor Daniel A. Murphy said he believes, with the measures the town has put into place, that development can be a positive thing for the residents of Hancock in several respects, including increasing the tax base and bearing the costs for improvements to the town's infrastructure without increasing taxes for existing residents.

To aid in that effort, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. last month renewed the town's Enterprise Zone designation, which allows the town to offer tax incentives to business owners who either move into town or expand their existing operations.

Smith said that while the designation initially was approved in 1995, he is hoping to work more closely with the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission to market the designation more aggressively.

With the spring 2005 closure of the Fleetwood Travel Trailers of Maryland plant, Smith said it is his hope that the designation will help attract businesses to the town's industrial park. Smith said he also would like to see more economic development along Main Street in town, a challenge he said is more difficult than many people realize.

"It's much more difficult; Everybody says you need to bring more business to Main Street, but it's not that easy," he said. "It was a real blow, to lose a business like (Fleetwood), to the town."

Smith said that while there is an increase in development activity, he believes that with the measures the town has put into place and the limited amount of vacant land within the incorporated areas of town, Hancock is in a good position to handle whatever growth occurs within its borders.

Murphy noted the town has several important maintenance projects on tap for the year, including the repair or replacement of a reservoir that was shut down last year due to a leakage issue, the replacement of a bridge at Kirk Wood Park that was flooded out in 2004, and an increase in street repairs, work that was affected by a cut in state highway user fees two years ago.

"We had two years in Hancock where we really didn't make any major repairs to our streets and now it's really starting to show," he said.

The town was awarded a $12,500 National Recreational Trails Program grant in December to hire a consultant to study the uses and economic impact of the Western Maryland Rail Trail, which Smith said is a major economic generator and selling point for Hancock.

The town wants to move forward with a plan to turn the former pumping station at Widmeyer Memorial Park into a performing arts center and to make improvements to Joseph Hancock Junior Park.

One thing Murphy said he hopes will not change is the collaborative effort that has developed between the town's various groups, including the Hancock Police Department's community policing effort, the Interfaith Service Coalition, the Hancock Chamber of Commerce, residents and business owners.

"We really have a sense of community going on here where groups are working together," Murphy said. "Everything just seems to be on a very positive note right now."

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