MOUNT AIRY - No solution to the Western annexation quandary, it seems, could come without controversy.
For months, residents have decried the proposed annexing of the 81-acre parcel off Prospect Road for a development of up to 260 housing units.
The Town Council made it clear it wasn't wild about new development, but was eager to access what promises to be a plentiful water supply on the land. So the council engineered an alternative.
At a special meeting Monday, the council voted unanimously to buy the land from Frall Developers Inc. for $1.2 million. The town will use $500,000 from new-development fees collected in recent months, with a $700,000 bond issue paying the rest.
But the vote followed caustic comments by some of the 35 residents who attended the meeting, which at times turned raucous. The group was divided over whether bolstering the town's strapped water supply was worth shelling out almost five times what Frall paid for the land in 1986.
"I think it's a ridiculous amount for the property," Westridge resident Jay Carswell told the council.
Said Faye Lopez, who has served on the town's planning commission, "I feel like we're being blackmailed for the well."
But other residents, and Council President Delaine Hobbs, said the deal was a sound one because it secures a much-needed water source without bartering new development to get it.
Frall President James M. Frey reportedly bought the land for $245,000 in December 1986. The developer had offered it to the town for $1.7 million, before the current deal was reached during a series of meetings that began in October. A recent appraisal of the land, at maximum development, put the value at $2.7 million.
Despite the attractiveness of the well, Councilman Marc Nance expressed apprehension about the purchase.
"I'm a little concerned about the message we're sending," he said. "We have a piece of property that may or may not be annexed, and we find it has a well and suddenly we're running after Frey with an open wallet."
But Hobbs disagreed.
"I think we're going in the opposite direction," he said. "We're going to have water and not have annexation."
Surveys indicate one well on the land capable of producing 281,000 gallons per day, a 30 percent increase of the town's water supply, said Hobbs.
Though Hobbs has promised the purchase won't cost taxpayers "one red cent," one resident said ancillary costs and an uncertain economy could escalate the cost of the deal, and possibly prompt a future tax increase.
"You're buying something you can't afford and pushing the cost onto the taxpayers," said Michael Boyer, a Main Street resident. He said yearly maintainance expenses, as well as the $200,000 cost of connecting the well to the town system, could raise the ultimate cost of the deal.
Other residents came to the defense of Frey, who has been criticized by some residents for trying to capitalize on the town's water needs for a profit.
"Some credit is due to Mr. Frey," said David Borisky. "He's compromised.
He's trying to give something to the town, it appears."
Despite his reservations on the deal, Nance said buying the land is the best solution.