Schoolhouse transfer for senior project expected today

Officials reject criticism that deal is overgenerous


April 13, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare and Hanah Cho | Mary Gail Hare and Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Plans to redevelop Hampstead's old elementary school may clear another hurdle tonight when the Town Council is expected to give developers ownership of the property for a $10 million senior housing project.

If the Hampstead Town Council approves the abandonment of the property, ownership of the 87-year-old schoolhouse and its adjacent parking lot will be transferred to the development team, which includes Landex Corp. of Baltimore and Interfaith Housing Alliance in Frederick.

Groundbreaking for the complex of 84 one- and two-bedroom units is set for this spring, with construction expected to take about 18 months.

But at least one local businessman isn't happy with the renovation plans.

Roy Harmon, owner of a variety shop on Hampstead's Main Street, says the town is giving away 5 acres of prime real estate in its downtown and the 64,000- square-foot building.

"This illusion of goodness -- senior housing and saving the building -- looks good at a glance," Harmon said. "But the bottom line is that school and that land have a great deal of value."

Harmon claims that neither the county nor the town has appraised the property. He has offered to pay for an appraisal, which he estimates would put the building's value at least at $1 million.

But Carroll County's Industrial Development Authority, a private group that conducts real estate transactions for the county, found in an appraisal conducted in the late 1990s that the property would be virtually worthless because it would cost $250,000 just to demolish the school building, said Hampstead Town Manager Ken Decker.

"The bottom line is that the town is not fixated on the cash value of the property," Decker said. "We're fixated on preserving the historical building and creating affordable housing for the elderly."

Progress on the redevelopment project has been stop-and-go for several years.

After Hampstead leaders chose a development team to convert the former school building into senior housing, the deal fell through after the group twice failed to obtain state tax credits needed to help finance the project.

Then Carroll's previous board of commissioners and Hampstead leaders fought over control of the property. In 2002, the commissioners decided to auction the building. But when the current board was elected later that year, the three officials pulled the plug on the auction.

The town eventually secured ownership of the property from the county; on a third attempt the development team secured $2 million in federal and state tax credits for the project.

Harmon, a restoration contractor whose business faces the school property, said he is not interested in restoring the building, but he contends other developers would be. He noted that the rear portion of the school building could be used immediately.

"They are not giving anyone equal opportunity here," Harmon said. "You better believe a lot of developers would look at this. The town is giving away real estate. How does Hampstead benefit here?"

Hampstead Mayor Haven Shoemaker said the school building has fallen into such poor shape over the years that the revitalization effort would create a boon for the town's downtown.

"If we strictly based our policy-making decisions on property value and maximizing profit, as it were, we would not do a lot of things in the interest of public good," Shoemaker said.

"We have a vested interest as a community in rehabbing an old structure identified by our Main Street consultant as the centerpiece of our downtown, and in doing so providing an amenity that will serve senior citizens well," the mayor said.

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