Westminster panel deals blow to planned Random House center

Utility extension OK'd only if city annexes land

July 21, 1999|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

A move by Random House Inc. to turn Westminster into its sole national distribution center was dealt a blow last night by the city's Planning and Zoning Commission.

The panel voted to extend water and sewerage service to 9 acres Random House needs to expand its distribution facility only if the property is annexed by Westminster.

If the property is annexed, Random House would have to pay property taxes to Westminster.

Random House is the No. 3 media and publishing company in the world behind Time Warner Inc. and Walt Disney Co. Its distribution center is on Lucabaugh Mill Road near Route 27 near Cranberry Mall.

Jack Lyburn, Carroll County's economic development director who has worked for nine months to negotiate the deal with the county's largest employer, was uncertain what the action would mean for the proposed 325,000-square-foot warehouse on the northeast edge of Westminster.

"This creates serious problems for Random House," Lyburn told the commission. He refused to elaborate on that statement.

The extension of water and sewer lines to the 39-acre site near Cranberry Mall would also allow Westminster Rescue Mission, a nonprofit Christian men's home for alcoholics and drug addicts, to have public utilities. For years, the mission has operated on Shalom Farm.

The publishing giant wants to expand onto 9 of the 39 acres that are owned by the mission -- and has started construction despite incomplete zoning and utility approvals by city and county agencies.

As part of its plans for Westminster, Random House will close two distribution centers in Des Plaines, Ill., in June 2000. A third, in Jackson, Tenn., will shift operations to outside publisher clients, such as Houghton Mifflin and National Geographic.

Earlier this year, Maryland legislators agreed to award Random House's parent company, Bertelsmann AG, a $2.5 million grant from the state's Sunny Day fund to help with construction plans.

In return, Bertelsmann agreed to keep 900 full-time permanent employees through Dec. 31, 2003, and to spend at least $30 million to renovate and expand the Westminster plant.

Random House is Carroll's largest employer, with about 1,200 workers and an annual payroll of $34 million, according to company figures provided to the state. It pays about $1 million a year in state taxes.

Random House, which was purchased by Germany's Bertelsmann last year, opened its Westminster operation on Lucabaugh Mill Road near Route 27 in 1966. The expansion would allow the company to distribute titles under the Random House, Knopf, Ballantine, Bantam, Doubleday, Dell and Broadway Books imprimaturs. Audio titles will also be warehoused and shipped from the facility.

Earlier yesterday, the county's Planning and Zoning Commission voted to amend Carroll's Master Plan for the water and sewage hookups on the 39 acres -- if the city's planning commission also endorsed the move.

Lyburn said the county commission would further review the matter today, as would he, after conferences with Random House officials.

As county zoning officials approved a change in zoning for the site last month from rural agricultural to industrial, Westminster officials objected, saying the property was outside its service area for public water and sewer.

Westminster officials continued that objection continued last night.

City officials were critical of Lyburn, who they said had failed to include them in the discussions about the expansion.

"The city can handle complexity," said Nancy B. Palmer, a commissioner. "This would have been easier if the city were involved throughout."

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