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Rundown light plant gets Hagerstown's attention

May 05, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN -- The former Municipal Electric Light Plant, now a privately owned, vacant building, is scarred by broken windows, trash and intruders, and Hagerstown officials are poised to take action.

The hulking municipal power plant across from Municipal Stadium was shut down decades ago, and its state of disrepair has been a simmering issue for years.

In the 1990s, a $20 million plan surfaced to turn the MELP building into an energy provider, in conjunction with a separate proposal for a paper-recycling operation nearby. The plan fizzled.

Instead, the building now is known for its periodic fires and break-ins. At times, homeless people have stayed there, officials have said.

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Last week, the Hagerstown City Council met in executive session to discuss code violations at the MELP building and pledged to release a statement this week explaining its intentions.

On Thursday and Friday, Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II and council members declined to comment before the statement is issued.

John Lestitian, Hagerstown's chief code compliance officer, said Friday that to keep the property secure, the city is on the verge of having someone put up a chain-link fence with barbed wire, then billing the owner.

Because "the owner's attempts to keep people out of the property have failed," Lestitian said, the building was condemned under a code section that lets the city create a "temporary safeguard" when a structure or property could be hazardous. That section allows the city to bill the owner for costs.

That "is not a code section that we used lightly," he said.

In addition, the city fire marshal's office has issued three citations in the past month, alleging inadequate measures to secure a vacant building so people can't get in and that there are combustible materials inside.

H.D. Thompson of Partners Marketing LLP in Staunton, Va., which has owned the MELP building for 12 years, said Friday he had no idea that the city council was about to make an announcement or that the building was condemned and cited.

"Well, thanks for letting me know ...," he said, referring to the fines, the first of which must be paid by Tuesday. "I don't for the life of me understand what game playing is going on. ... How do you pay a fine you don't know exists?"

Copies of the fire code citations indicate they were sent by certified mail to Partners Marketing LLP's post office box, but Thompson said he didn't get them, and the city hasn't contacted him "probably in the last couple months."

And yet, "I don't have any problem getting my tax bills," Thompson said.

If the city wants to talk, "they certainly know how to get in touch with me," he said.

Asked about not maintaining the property, Thompson said, "There's quite a bit to be said," but he declined to elaborate until he hears the city council's statement.

"It'd be wiser to wait and reserve my comments," he said.

The building used to be the city's Municipal Electric Light Plant, a power-generation facility.

A 1982 Herald-Mail story pinpoints 1972 as the year the plant last routinely generated electricity.

The city wanted to get it running again, the story says.

But then-Mayor Don Frush was quoted saying that when he and council members toured the plant, they were "dumbfounded to see the deplorable state of some of the expensive machinery."

Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation records show that the city gave the property to Hagerstown Fiber & Light Limited Partnership in 1994.

In 1996, Partners Marketing LLP bought the 2.96-acre parcel for $250,000.

Washington County Treasurer Todd Hershey said the property went to tax sale on June 3, 1997, because of nonpayment of taxes.

However, Thompson redeemed it on Sept. 30, 1997, before the tax-sale buyer could take over the property. He reimbursed the buyer $5,853.27 in taxes and paid the county $3,084.48 for additional accrued taxes, Hershey said.

Since then, Thompson has regularly paid his county property tax, Hershey said.

Thompson said he and the city have had discussions over the years about reusing the building.

A 1997 Herald-Mail story says Partners Marketing LLP proposed spending $20 million so a business at the MELP building would burn for fuel the fiber sludge generated at a nearby recycling facility.

Burning sludge and tires was to provide electricity for the city, and steam for Washington County Hospital and the recycling facility, the story says.

"There was great hopes they were trying to get it to be an actual producer," Hagerstown Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said Friday.

But the $250 million paper recycling plant at Eastern and Memorial boulevards was shut down and the owner filed for bankruptcy.

The city council went into executive session Tuesday to discuss code enforcement problems at several properties, including the MELP building.

Metzner asked if the MELP discussion could be held publicly. But Mark Boyer, a city attorney, argued that it should be kept private, to discuss "strategy."

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