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Hagerstown City Council plans move on MELP plant through eminent domain

August 20, 2013|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com
  • The Hagerstown City Council came to a consensus to begin the process of taking the former Municipal Electric Light Plant property at the intersection of Eastern Boulevard south and Mt. Aetna Road by eminent domain, a legal process by which the city can take back private property for public use.
File photo

With negotiations at a stalemate, city officials intend to pursue legal action to reclaim the former Municipal Electric Light Plant property in the East End, the Hagerstown City Council decided Tuesday.

The five-member council came to a consensus to begin the process of taking the 2.96-acre property by “eminent domain,” a legal process by which the city can take back private property for public use.

The city has been in negotiations with the current owner, David Harshman, for about 28 months now, according to city Director of Utilities Michael Spiker, who updated the  council on the process during a work session at City Hall.

Spiker said he consulted with City Attorney John Urner during an executive session on Aug. 14 about moving forward with eminent domain.

The council will bring the measure to a vote at its Aug. 27 regular session meeting.

The day before the vote, Maryland Department of the Environment officials will be in Hagerstown for a public hearing about the cleanup of the MELP property, Mayor David S. Gysberts said.

That meeting will take place Monday, Aug. 26, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., inside Room 227 at the Washington County Administration Building, 100 W. Washington St.

Since coming into office, council members have said demolishing the blighted brick structure at the intersection of Eastern Boulevard south and Mt. Aetna Road has been a priority — and they say it’s time to force the owner’s hand in making that happen.

“I’m not aware historically the last time the city has proceeded with eminent domain for any reason,” Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said. “This is an example where such an action would be appropriate.”

Harshman and his associates have been unable to strike a deal with the city to bring the building down. The city has been asked to contribute up to $1 million toward the demolition, Spiker said.

A major holdup in the process for both sides has been uncertainty surrounding costs to remove an unknown amount of contaminated water sitting inside the building, which has “low-level” contaminates from metals and oils, Harshman said in January.

Councilman Martin E. Brubaker acknowledged that action by the city is necessary, but urged his fellow council members to proceed with caution to protect the city’s interests with the danger of the unknown costs.

Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire, who’s been very vocal about seeing the building demolished and cleaned up as part of an overall redevelopment of the city’s East End, said it has become a post-closure responsibility for the city, even though the MELP is no longer city-owned.

Explaining the legal aspects of eminent domain proceedings, Urner told council members it may take about a year to go through the preliminary process, with the case ultimately going before a judge or jury to determine the value of the property and award  it to Harshman.

Urner would not estimate the costs of the eminent domain process for either party. He said eminent domain would only allow the city to acquire the property and would not include demolition costs.

“This is the only way for the city to be sure it acquires this piece of property,” Gysberts said.

City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said filing a lawsuit against the owner does not preclude the city from continuing negotiations for a purchase and cleanup of the property.

Local state lawmakers have been working to secure funding to assist in the demolition of the building, which has been owned by Harshman since 1996.

Spiker said in December 2012 that the assessed value of the property, which borders on the Antietam Creek, is about $176,000.

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