County orders auction of site

But town leaders object to decision on old school

Legal action a possibility

Council prefers plan tied to revitalizing Main Street

Hampstead

October 11, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The Carroll commissioners moved forward yesterday with plans to auction the former Hampstead Elementary School despite continued objections from the town's leaders, who want a development team they selected to revamp the property as the centerpiece of a Main Street revitalization effort.

The commissioners promised they would use conditions recommended by the Town Council to pare the field of bidders. But they resisted Mayor Christopher Nevin's request that the town-selected development team be given a second chance to procure state tax credits for a project that would transform the school into a low-cost senior housing center.

"My main thing is to get this thing settled and find out the real value of the building," Commissioner Donald I. Dell said to explain his support for an auction. Officials are unsure how much the property might sell for in an auction or whether anyone would bid on it.

Town leaders say they will consider legal action to prevent the auction but say they are not ready to reveal legal strategies.

"We'll do what we can to protect what we think is the centerpiece of our town," Nevin said.

The saga of the school is wrapped in frustrations over the deterioration of a long-neglected building and political bitterness between town leaders and departing Commissioners Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier.

The town and commissioners have negotiated the fate of the 91-year-old school since the mid-1990s. Town officials thought they had found a solution last year when the commissioners tentatively agreed to sell the building to the town for $100,000. The town then would have given it to a team led by Baltimore redevelopment specialists Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse.

But when the development team failed to receive low-income-housing tax credits for a second time last month, Dell and Frazier said they were tired of waiting. The two voted to auction the school last week despite pleas from Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge to give the developers another chance.

The decision drew immediate criticism from Nevin, who said he believed the votes might have been motivated by revenge because he had written in the town newsletter that he hoped Dell and Frazier wouldn't be re-elected.

At a meeting Tuesday night with Nevin and his Town Council, Dell and Frazier faced more criticism. Town leaders argued that an auction wouldn't offer the town or county enough control over the fate of the property because it would give the school to the highest bidder. They said a different bidding mechanism, such as a request for proposals, would work better.

Under such a request, the county would solicit bids, but they would be attached to specific proposals for developing the property, and the county wouldn't be obligated to pick the highest bidder. The commissioners would choose the best overall plan.

"I don't see how you can construct an auction process that has any element of planning to it," said Hampstead Councilman Larry Hentz.

The commissioners said they can ensure a good fate for the school by placing conditions on the auction. Under plans discussed yesterday, the commissioners would require bidders to prove they could finance a redevelopment project with a budget of at least $5 million, repair the school's leaky roof within 90 days of purchase and preserve the building's original architecture and facade.

The county also would require a minimum bid of $100,000 and might include a clause that would return the school to county ownership if redevelopment doesn't begin within a year.

The commissioners did not vote on a final version of the auction to be advertised in local newspapers but directed county attorneys to finalize one for approval as soon as possible.

Town leaders might try to prevent the auction.

But if they can't, they promise to make life difficult for any winning bidder whose project doesn't meet their standards. The town probably would have to annex the property and provide water for any proposed development, and it could refuse to do so.

The town also might consider using eminent domain laws to seize the building if the winning bidder allows it to sit and deteriorate or submits a plan that doesn't suit the Town Council, Nevin said.

"The town has lots of control, no doubt about that," Frazier said. "And that's fine. That's good."

But Nevin wonders why, if the commissioners want Hampstead to retain some control over the property, they won't let the town pursue the plan it wants.

When Frazier asked him Tuesday night if he had any last suggestions for the auction, the mayor replied, "Don't do it."

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