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Washington County commissioners approve $544,000 school mitigation for developer

Opponents protest decision

June 25, 2013|By C.J. LOVELACE |

The Washington County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday approved a school mitigation proposal with a local developer, despite a protest by opponents who turned out with signs asking the commissioners to deny the proposal in accordance with the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.

The commissioners voted 3-1 to allow The Reserve at Collegiate Acres, a planned 272-unit multifamily development in northwest Hagerstown, to move forward at a cost of $2,000 per unit, or $544,000 total, to be paid for schools that will be directly impacted by projected growth from the new apartments.

Commissioners President Terry Baker cast the dissenting vote. Commissioner John F. Barr was absent from the meeting.

The county plans to hold a public hearing in late July to amend its APFO to add a formula and cost structure for future charges to developers that want to build in areas where schools may be at or over student capacity.

Baker said he voted against the proposal because the apartments, located between Salem Avenue and Maugansville Road, will be built in two phases — one this year and another in 2015.

Agreeing to set a cost Tuesday for the development would provide an unfair advantage to other developers who wish to do similar projects in the future, he said.

“My main concern is fairness,” Baker said after the meeting.

At the APFO public hearing, county staff members are expected to propose a cost of $2,400 per unit for multifamily apartments and $3,000 per single-family home, Baker said.

That would be a substantial increase over the mutually agreed upon amount by the board and developer Trey Alter at the meeting.

“If we could have come up with some kind of a compromise on the phasings, I most likely would have supported the project, but I didn’t think it was appropriate to go ahead and support both phases,” he said. “Phase two isn’t supposed to start until 2015 anyway.”

Attorney Jason Divelbiss presented a mitigation proposal to the commissioners on June 11 that included a phased-in approach for construction, but no monetary contribution to the county for schools. The board told Divelbiss and Alter then that some sort of money would be necessary to gain approval.

Divelbiss and Alter returned Tuesday with a proposal that offered $477,664 in two installments to coincide with the two phases of construction of the apartments, including $241,739 for the first 148 units this year and $205,925 for the other 124 units in 2015.

The proposed payment was equivalent to $1,645.82 per unit, which Commissioner Jeff Cline suggested bumping up to $2,000 per unit.
Alter said he was agreeable to the suggested cost before the commissioners voted to approve it.

“My hope today is to put this to bed,” Alter said. “In business, uncertainty is the very worst thing.”

Divelbiss said it’s difficult to estimate enrollment projects and capital needs for aging schools under the current adequate facilities ordinance.

 “It’s not as easy as the opposition here today would have anybody believe — the simple matter of ‘if you want to build, you have to build a school.’ It’s just not that simple of an analysis,” he said.

Public opposition

Close to a dozen people — many armed with signs — showed up to protest the mitigation proposal, including several members of the local tea party and Citizens for Protection of Washington County.

CPWC President Joe Lane told the commissioners that the development was unneeded and burdensome to county taxpayers, specifically because it is projected to put three schools — Maugansville Elementary, Western Heights Middle and North Hagerstown High schools — over their local- and state-rated capacities by 193, 52 and 454 students, respectively.

“We have an APFO for a reason,” Lane said. “It’s time to say ‘no.’”

Lane said it would cost millions to address the capacity issues at those three schools, although the commissioners said that money is currently earmarked in the county’s long-term Capital Improvement Plan to build new schools, including a new high school.

Nancy Allen, a Hagerstown resident who lives in the North End and works in real estate, said she’s seen an increase in crime around the North End, much of it in the vicinity of the recently built Cortland Apartments off Cortland Drive.

Allen urged the commissioners not to rush its decision for a “chunk of change” from a developer when it stands to gain more in the long run once the APFO is amended and the real estate market rebounds.

In response to the comments, Alter said he took exception that The Reserve was being deemed the “next Cortland waiting to happen.”

Alter said he plans to build high-end apartments in the complex, with free fiber-optic network access, on-site security features and attached garages. A clubhouse would be one of the first things built, he said.

The multifamily development would take a $35 million investment, creating about 270 construction jobs for local contractors in the process, Alter said. It would also provide a substantial boost to city and county tax rolls well into the future, he said.

“Today is not a vote for another Cortland,” Alter said.

Now that the county’s has approved the mitigation proposal, Divelbiss and Alter can now go back to the Hagerstown City Council to receive its endorsement and start the process of securing the first round of building permits for phase one of construction.

The project was initially approved in February by the city Planning Commission, which stipulated the developer would need to gain approval through the county’s adequate facilities ordinance in regard to the public school system.

“I’d like to think that all parties are satisfied that we were able to do that today,” Divelbiss said.

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