Questions may delay shelter funds Critics say county broke federal rules on adequate public notice

HUD asked to investigate

Others fear building of homeless facility would harm wetlands

January 20, 1998|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

Money for a new homeless shelter in Westminster could be delayed because of a possible violation of federal housing regulations by the County Commissioners.

Critics say the county failed to provide adequate public notice of two steps in its effort to move forward with construction of a 3,500- to 4,000-square-foot facility in a county-owned park near Route 140 and Center Street.

The state Department of Human Resources is asking the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine whether the county violated federal regulations by not notifying interested residents of those steps, which include:

The county concluded that the shelter would have no significant environmental impact on Longwell Run, which meanders through a 5.25-acre park in the 200 block of N. Center St. The stream has been the object of a four-year effort to erase long-term damage from runoff. The project has been financed by about $600,000 in federal, state and local grants.

Human Services Programs Inc., the agency that will operate the shelter, asked the DHR to release $322,000 for construction. HSP operates the existing homeless shelter adjacent to Carroll County General Hospital in Westminster.

Several residents have asked the state not to release the money until the county broadens its public notification.

The county notified the public with a legal advertisement in the Carroll County Times on Christmas Eve.

The DHR received five letters contending that the county's action was inadequate. Two of them alleged that failure to notify interested citizens violated federal regulations.

Officials expect to respond to the allegations within one month. Federal and state officials could order the county to repeat the notification process with additional public notice and a public hearing.

Announcing the decision through a legal advertisement on Christmas Eve was "sneaky," said Damian L. Halstad, a Westminster councilman who submitted a letter. "The way it was done tells me they don't want an open and honest debate. They just want to sneak it through and that troubles me."

bTC Halstad and Westminster officials argued that the handling of the issue violated a federal regulation that requires the county and the HSP to notify interested citizens.

Residents who provided the county with names and addresses at an Oct. 7 public hearing did not receive notification of the recent actions.

Steven D. Powell, county budget director, said the legal advertisement met the grant requirements.

Commissioner Donald I. Dell said the commissioners don't usually give individual notice of actions on such matters.

"If the public doesn't know about what's going on there, shame on them, because it's been in the newspaper for about a year," Dell said.

DHR officials Robert E. Mulderig and Kathleen Graham said the shelter construction grant is not in jeopardy unless other agencies raise environmental objections.

"If the environmental review came back and said there is no danger, I don't know that it would be incumbent on us to take another position," Mulderig said.

Graham said the public comments will be circulated to state environmental agencies for review.

State environmental officials raised no initial objections to the county's plan. The state Department of Natural Resources has warned that the county cannot build its storm water management pond on wetlands at the site. Federal and state grants paid for the creation of the wetlands.

Construction of the shelter is overdue. Terms of the grant called for the building to be open by now. The grant, however, doesn't expire until March 1999.

A new overnight shelter is needed because the county sold the existing 26-bed facility and the county Health Department building on Stoner Avenue to Carroll County General Hospital in 1994.

In letters to DHR, residents have questioned the county's conclusion that the shelter would not harm Longwell Run.

"I cannot imagine the construction can be completed without adversely affecting the wetlands or stream channel," wrote Gregor Becker, chairman of the Sierra Club's Catoctin chapter.

Westminster officials also challenged the conclusion.

"The lack of site plan details for the building and related parking construction make it impossible to determine whether the recently created wetland areas will be negatively affected," Thomas B. Beyard, city planning and public works director, wrote in a letter.

Pub Date: 1/20/98

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