Zoning talk has hospital uneasy

Town considering change to protect bog turtles on land

Owner fears devaluation

February 17, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

In a tale of turtles, zoning designations and millions of dollars, officials at Carroll County General Hospital have a potential conflict with the town of Hampstead over a 267-acre parcel within town limits.

Lawyers for the hospital, which owns the property, say it could be worth between $2 million and $3 million if developed. The land, however, includes a 72-acre patch inhabited by endangered bog turtles.

Developing an industrial site around the turtles would be difficult, and given this and other problems, the town wants to change the parcel's zoning designation from industrial to environmentally protected. Such a move would drastically reduce the property's value, hospital officials say.

That presents an immediate problem because hospital officials say they are about to negotiate a price for the land with the State Highway Administration, which needs to buy all or most of the property if it is to build a Route 30 bypass around Hampstead.

By changing the zoning designation, hospital officials say, Hampstead would deprive the hospital of millions of endowment dollars in an unnecessary effort to protect the future of a property that will never be developed anyway.

"This zoning decision would, in our minds, only affect the compensation the hospital could receive [for the land]," said Kurt Fischer, an attorney with Piper & Marbury who is representing the hospital in negotiations with the state.

Hampstead officials said the town can't base its planning on uncertain negotiations between the state and the hospital. Their job, they say, is to make the zoning code reflect appropriate uses for all the land in town. Rezoning the land would be part of the town's efforts to revise its comprehensive plan, a blueprint for land use that is updated periodically.

"Frankly, the hospital's negotiations with the state can't legally have any bearing on our efforts to make a comprehensive plan," said Town Manager Kenneth C. Decker. "We have to look at the best use for properties based on how they can be developed in the real world. We can't cut zoning deals with people because they have specific desires."

That doesn't mean Hampstead leaders won't consider the points hospital officials raised in a presentation to the Town Council on Tuesday night, Decker said.

During that presentation, hospital attorneys offered to transfer control of the 72-acre turtle habitat to the town, which then would place the habitat in the care of an environmental agency or group. In turn, they asked town officials to leave the property zoned industrial as it has been since the 1960s, in recognition of the fact that the land could support some form of clean industry. The exchange of favors would give Hampstead what it wants - control and protection of the turtle habitat - while allowing the hospital to negotiate for top dollar from the state.

The deal would be a good one for the town, the hospital and the turtles, regardless of negotiations with the state, said John M. Sernulka, president and chief executive officer of the hospital.

The hospital's proposal "is consistent with their goals and yet preserves the hospital," Sernulka said.

Part of the stalemate results from differences between the real world, in which hospital officials acknowledge they would never develop most of the land, and the phantom world of negotiating right-of-way purchase values with a state agency. In that phantom world, hospital officials must keep alive the notion that their land could be sold to some company for millions, despite town and county officials' acknowledgment that no potential buyer has seriously considered the property for decades.

The hospital has owned the land since 1965, when a Hampstead woman bequeathed it to the newborn community institution. The hospital never aggressively marketed the land to potential industrial buyers, because the wetlands on it and the ever-present shadow of the bypass would have devalued it, Sernulka said. With the emergence in the 1990s of the fist-size and ultra-shy bog turtle as an impediment to development in and around Hampstead, the land lost more perceived value. The hospital doesn't count the land's value as part of its current $5 million endowment.

One of the more persuasive elements of the hospital's argument, Decker said, involves experts' claims that light industry would make a better neighbor for the turtles than a farm or a subdivision. If the hospital can convince town planning officials that such industry would constitute the best use for much of the land, officials might leave the land zoned industrial.

The problem remains, however, that many town officials believe the land has nowhere near the value as an industrial site that hospital officials claim.

Town leaders also have learned to treat skeptically any claims that the long-awaited bypass construction is right around the corner.

"We've been hearing that for decades," Decker said. "We'd be fools to base our long-term plan around it happening at a given time."

That might be true to a point, said Sernulka, who estimated that the state might buy the land anytime in the next two to 10 years. "But we believe the state is in an acquisition state of mind."

The state has begun budgeting money to buy rights of way for the road, and highway planners said in presentations last year that the road should be completed within 10 years.

An official decision about the zoning could be made Feb. 26, during a meeting of Hampstead's Planning and Zoning Commission. The commission probably will make a recommendation to the Town Council, which then will vote on a final version of the town's comprehensive zoning plan. The county planning commission probably will abide by the town's decision on the matter, because the property falls within Hampstead town limits, Decker said.

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