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Taking of MELP building might be necessary step

August 26, 2013

Only in the most extreme cases do we condone the public taking of private property through the use of eminent domain. But the old MELP power plant in Hagerstown’s East End fits the bill.

The city has certainly tried to meet the owner halfway as it seeks to demolish the industrial eyesore. It is worth little — the assessed value of the brick monolith is a paltry $176,000 — and it would be wrong for the city to overpay.

Whatever plans the owner might have had for the plant have long since gone by the boards, and the owner has done little to keep the property from falling into public-nuisance status.

Vermin have taken over, fires have been reported and, until the city ringed it with a chain-link fence, it had become something of a shelter for the homeless.

The City of Hagerstown sold the MELP building to Hagerstown Fiber and Light for $1 in 1994. Two years later, the property was flipped to the current owners for $250,000 at a time when hope sprung eternal for the First Urban Fiber paper recycling plant. MELP was to convert First Urban’s waste into energy, but First Urban filed for bankruptcy almost before it got started, leaving the city on the hook for $2.35 million worth of utility improvement costs.

Since then, MELP has decayed into its present condition.

The plant sits along Antietam Creek on what could be a choice piece of recreational real estate, should the city choose to go in that direction. Even without considering the ground’s potential, the demolition of the plant would, for the East End, be addition by subtraction.

The caveat, as city council member Martin Brubaker points out, is the potential for expensive pollution remediation. Contaminated water collects in the plant’s basement, although the extent of the risk is unknown.

The East End has long been seen as a site for potential revitalization, and with the creek flowing through its midst there are plenty of possibilities.

But whatever is to happen in this neighborhood, the first item of business is to demolish the power plant, and if eminent domain is what it takes, so be it.

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