YMCA rejects criticism about land's price

Group says school system offering less than its value

Howard At Play

September 12, 2004|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

The Howard County YMCA in Ellicott City, stung by recent criticism that its asking price for some of its land may scuttle a deal for a sorely needed new elementary school, is fighting back.

Troy S. Weaver, the branch's executive director, wrote to the nonprofit group's 7,000 members that the county public school system is offering "significantly less than the appraised value" for the land off Montgomery Road, across from Long Gate Shopping Center.

The letter, which some members received last week, said that "a sale at this rate would not generate the funds needed to move forward with a [construction project]." Members entering the YMCA's foyer are greeted with a 3-foot-tall copy of the letter.

Weaver told members that the YMCA took the unusual step of writing the letter during negotiations because "there has been speculation [in the community] that we are asking more than the fair market value of the property."

His boss, Lee J. Jensen, president and chief executive of the YMCA of Central Maryland, said in an interview that "we put the statement out because of rumors and innuendo from some groups, and we had to combat that." He declined to specify any of those groups.

The YMCA, coping with cramped, 38-year-old quarters that have required frequent repairs and have also been expanded with a portable classroom, has been trying for more than five years to find a way to pay for a new, larger facility.

Its acreage was rezoned this spring to allow high-density housing, and thus has a higher price in the real estate market. The YMCA solicited developers in April in hopes of generating the needed money in exchange for land.

Since then, the school system, the YMCA and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 7472, which owns adjoining acreage, have been in talks, although Weaver wrote that "we have ... received numerous proposals from developers."

Sydney L. Cousin, the county schools superintendent, said last week that about 7 acres of YMCA property and 15 of VFW land are needed to make the school a reality. He said the VFW has agreed, though not contractually, to sell its parcel.

Weaver and Jensen both said last week that they're optimistic about reaching a contract.

"We all want the same thing for the kids and families of Howard County," Jensen said.

He said members were sent the letter because "we're an upstanding and forthright organization, and when [groups] criticize us for a lack of values and integrity - we can't stand by and let that happen."

About the negotiations, Jensen said: "My sense is that all parties are willing to compromise. There's a lot of win-win for all of us, if we can put this together. But we need a fair price on the land to leverage a new Y. I can say we're closer than we were last month."

Cousin and Jensen both said the YMCA's 7 acres would be used for playing fields that both entities need.

Neither would talk about the money being debated.

"An effort like this can't be negotiated publicly," Jensen said.

"We're still talking to them, and that's positive," Cousin said. "We'd like to have an agreement as soon as possible."

Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for the school system, said sites are being hunted for two new elementary schools in the northern and northeastern sections of the county.

Caplan said growth in the southern Ellicott City area, eastward toward Elkridge, is such that the system's capital budget calls for one elementary school to open in 2007 and the other a year later.

Although Jensen played it down, the YMCA - which offers members fitness classes, gym equipment and a 25-yard indoor swimming pool among its services - is in an increasingly difficult competitive situation.

The Columbia Association offers three larger, newer fitness centers and indoor swimming. Life Time Fitness, a national company known for large facilities, plans to open a gym in Columbia next year or in early 2006.

Jensen said a price consistent with what high-density housing property is selling for could provide the YMCA with the money it needs. He said he had hoped for commercial zoning, which would have generated even more money, but that wasn't granted in the comprehensive rezoning process.

The YMCA had a near deal in 2001 that would have resulted in a new facility, as well as a Lowe's home improvement center, on the property. But a nearby Baptist church's membership scuttled that effort at the last minute.

At that time, the YMCA was reported to have received about $3 million for its share of the land transaction.

The school system has attempted twice to buy land for new schools along Montgomery Road in the past couple years. One, on the site of a former landfill, was deemed too risky; the other, on a farm and orchard, met resistance from the community and the farm's owner.

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