Questions aired about strip-mall proposal near Hancock

April 29, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

HANCOCK -- The state's objection to trading land might put a crimp in a developer's plan to build a strip mall near the Western Maryland Rail Trail in Hancock.

The Hancock Town Council has given its blessing to the concept of the project, which would be along Md. 144.

Hancock officials said at a meeting at Town Hall on Monday that the project, if built and annexed into the town, could bring in about $300,000, a large bump in tax revenue.

As Route 144 LLC, Stephen Sagi and Ted Weaver Sr. hope to build a strip center. Sagi said McDonald's is interested in opening a store there and a Cracker Barrel might be possible.

The project, which has not formally been proposed to Washington County planning officials for review, also would include a three- or four-story hotel.


They estimated that the project would cost more than $35 million and lead to about 300 new jobs.

To make the plan work, they say, they need to extend their property back another 100 feet toward the rail trail, a 20-plus-mile recreational-use path maintained by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

"The additional requirement would be 183,764.00 sq. ft. or 4.22 acres," a project summary says.

But a March 4 letter from DNR Secretary John R. Griffin to Del. Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany, indicates that a land swap is unlikely.

"...[A]s we have stated in the past, we do not intend to transfer any Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) land for the proposed commercial development along Route 144 ...," the letter says.

In a letter to other state officials, Kelly wrote that Hancock is outside of his legislative district, yet he's concerned about aspects of the project.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., whose district includes Hancock, said a land swap takes time and the approval of both the state Board of Public Works and the Maryland General Assembly.

Without DNR's approval, "I just don't know how far it's going to go," he said.

Weaver said he hadn't heard about Griffin's specific opposition to the land transaction.

In an interview after their presentation, Weaver and Sagi said the project still could be built without the land transfer.

"But it won't be effective," Sagi said.

"Nor would it be as attractive," Weaver said. "Our main concern is to maintain the integrity of the rails to trails."

During the meeting, Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, questioned logistics of the development plan. He said an elevation difference between the rail trail and the strip center probably would require a retaining wall.

Also, the proximity of the strip center might cut into the serenity people expect on the rail trail, Myers said.

Sen. George C. Edwards, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, said the developers would have a large area to fill before they could build.

Sagi replied that shale from a proposed town house project nearby could be used.

In one letter, Kelly asked whether rubble that now sits in that area near Md. 144 violates dumping regulations.

State officials at Monday's meeting said a permit for that land expired.

"You can't put fill there until you have a new waterway permit," said Sean E. McKewen, chief of the Maryland Department of the Environment's Nontidal Wetlands & Waterways Division.

After more than an hour of questions and answers about the project, Councilman Sinclair Hamilton said the town sees potential.

Although service jobs won't replace hundreds of manufacturing jobs the town has lost, he said, "it would be unconscionable for us" not to pursue these jobs.

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