Panel not on same page as Random House, state

Westminster officials, `left out of the loop,' balk at expansion

August 03, 1999|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

An obscure yet stubborn Westminster zoning commission -- that includes a nurse, a high school wrestling coach and a college history professor -- is threatening a multimillion-dollar expansion by Random House, Carroll County's largest employer.

The New York publishing giant wants to increase its sprawling warehouse complex and create a single, nationwide distribution center for its extensive list of imprints: Random House, Knopf, Ballantine, Bantam, Doubleday, Dell and Broadway Books. The expansion -- aided by a $2.5 million state grant -- has breezed through regulatory bodies.

Until now.

Westminster's Planning and Zoning Commission has balked at the $30 million project, voting last month to deny water and sewer lines to a proposed section of a complex that would be larger than most regional malls, unless the land is annexed. Annexation would force Random House to pay higher property taxes -- a move the company and county are resisting.

"Indirectly, I felt pressure," zoning commission member Dennis F. Frazier, a wrestling coach at Loyola Blakefield high school in Baltimore County, says of the vote last month. "It was a large deal that meant a lot of economic growth and jobs, and the county officials made a lot of calls to the city to explain that. They wanted the deal to go through with no roadblocks -- smooth sailing.

"We hope we sent the message that we're not looking at larger corporations differently than the smaller ones. We got the request the day before our meeting and had no time to study it. This is not our full-time job."

The five-member commission, which meets monthly, rarely finds itself in such high-stakes negotiations.

The focus of the squabbling is a complex on the eastern edge of Westminster, a center opened in 1966 amid great fanfare and a ribbon-cutting by Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf. Random House employs about 1,200 workers locally with an annual payroll of $34 million, company figures show, and pays about $1 million a year in state taxes.

State and county officials have backed the expansion plans of Random House, which is owned by Bertelsmann AG of Germany.

As part of its plans, Random House will close two centers in Des Plaines, Ill., in June. A third, in Jackson, Tenn., will shift operations to other publishers.

Without the state grant, tied to renovations, job training and construction, officials said there was a risk of losing 900 local jobs, because Bertelsmann might have consolidated warehouses outside Maryland.

Westminster officials say the recent problems began when John T. "Jack" Lyburn Jr., Carroll's economic development director, excluded them from the Bertelsmann negotiations that began in October.

"The city was left out of the loop even though they are asked to sign off on the benefits," said R. Douglas Mathias, executive director of the Greater Westminster Development Corp., a business-oriented group not involved in the deal. "There is no substitute for direct communication. Until they get it, this probably is not going to get corrected."

`In the 11th hour'

Westminster Mayor Kenneth A. Yowan, who appoints the zoning commission, agreed.

"A big part of the problem was that the city was brought in on this in the 11th hour. And that's something that shouldn't happen," he said. "When you ask people to do something at the last minute and act like it's an emergency, you're likely to get resentment."

Lyburn has refused to comment, except to tell the zoning panel: "It's a very complicated, complex deal."

Carroll's three commissioners also refused to comment because negotiations are continuing.

Random House has started building a 325,000-square-foot warehouse, adding to its 872,500 square feet of warehouse space in five buildings.

The focus of the dispute over utilities and annexation is a planned 600,000-square-foot structure. The company is negotiating to purchase 9 acres of a 39-acre farm for that expansion.

State legislators endorsed the expansion this summer by giving the company a $2.5 million economic development grant that ensures jobs will remain at the plant through 2003.

Random House executives plan to meet this month with Westminster and county officials, said Thomas B. Beyard, the city's director of planning and public works. But he would provide little information about the negotiations.

Random House reaction

Corporate reaction to the annexation proposal has been cool.

Bill Barry, a Random House senior vice president, said last week that the company is "not motivated to pay additional taxes" and could investigate installing a water supply at the site when the 600,000-square-foot building is added.

"We're not sure annexation needs to happen as a solution for us," said Stuart Applebaum, a Random House vice president and spokesman. He added: "We're hopeful that in the end, we'll all be satisfied with the final resolution and everybody is well-served."

But zoning commission member Suzanne P. Albert, who also serves on the Westminster Common Council, continues to hold the line.

Albert, a registered nurse and senior care administrator, said annexation is the only way to ensure future water capacity for Westminster, the seat of a rural county where water supply is often a political issue.

"We have to look at things long-range," Albert said. "I don't feel guilty. I feel things have to be planned well. This will work out to help the county and the city -- if we work together."

Pub Date: 8/03/99

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