Property That Hauled Mayor & Commissioners into Court Demolished

Elkton Town Hall, August 4, 2010 — A vacant property at the center of a controversy that dragged the Mayor and Commissioners into court and resulted in a decision that Elkton exceeded its authority has been demolished.  “If anyone has gone down High Street this  morning, the Collins property was taken down.  It’s been a long time coming.  We’re all happy it’s gone.  It’s been a blighted area of the town for a long time,” Mayor Joseph Fisona said in referring to the 110 Collins Street structure. 

The dispute began when two Elkton taxpayers, seeking to stop the municipality from waiving major facilities fees and permitting the transfer of those credits to a third party, filed a suit in the Circuit Court.  The case also cited irregularities related to lapses in adherence to zoning regulations.  Once people became aware of the board action, controversy erupted at a public meeting, causing Mayor Fisona to announce stricter regulations for public participation since he said “the meeting went off course.”

On July 13, the town agreed in Circuit Court that it didn’t have the authority to transfer financial credits and the action of the mayor and commissioners was annulled.  Between these points in time the municipality got busy with the  legislative process, passing three ordinances that would have made the earlier actions legal.   Judge Beck remarked as he heard this evidence:  “It seems to me that whenever a mistake was found you’re [the town] backing up and changing the ordinance . . . . Shouldn’t you have to start this thing all over again?’ he remarked.  Any waiver of fees will have to go back through Elkton’s municipal processes. 

When the original decision was made the town cited its blight reduction policy as a reason for waiving about $150,000 in major utility hook-up fees for the developer.  Someone Noticed filed a Freedom of Information act request at the time to see the policy, but we were informed that it was still under development.  We’ve periodically followed up since the board’s approval was based on these gudielines, it said.  This evening Commissioner Jablonski, who also serves as the town’s Main Street Manager, brought up the policy she’d cited in Dec 2009 in urging other board members to vote favorable on these requests.  “I’d still like us to look into an ordinance for blighted areas.  There are empty buildings and boarded up buildings everywhere through the town.  I’d really like us to do something,” she said as urged the development of a practice they’d already cited to justify the early votes.  To that, Commissioner Hicks said:  “I still insist we have appropriate ordinances in the charter.  They just need to be enforced.”   The matter of enforcing ordinances already on the books is something that has come up frequently at recent town meetings.   A similar discussion occurred in June when Commissioner Jablonski brought in a copy of an ordinance related to serving alcohol in the downtown area.  The town attorney said why don’t we just enforce what we already have on the books, as the board discussed the legal technicalities of the Commissoiner’s proposal.

Now that the lot is vacant, it’s reported that it will be turned into a community garden.  The original approval was for a parking lot, which the town’s zoning ordinance didn’t permit as a use in that area.

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10 responses to “Property That Hauled Mayor & Commissioners into Court Demolished

  1. I guess it must be in the water there in Elkton… This isn’t the first administration to struggle with what they think is “right” and what is “legal.”

    And – remember, even those who serve long-term don’t often get better at their job. If they don’t have the skills to begin with – and don’t do anything to acquire them – the only thing they get better at is doing things the “wrong” way.

    I’m sure the thinking part of the town’s population appreciates Someone Noticed keeping track of what their elected officials claim and what is actually the truth.

    It’s obvious that “policy” they used in their defense never existed if the business brain trust says it’s still necessary to “look into an ordinance for blighted areas.” Could she argue that there’s a “policy” (not written down, but still being formulated in the Town Administrator’s mind, mind you) – but an “ordinance” is something that’s written down and published for the public to see?

    I wonder how many more “policies” there are that are in place, that no one can see…?

    • Wayne, intereting point you make when you comment that “. . . those who serve long-term don’t get better at their jobs.”

      On the question of appreciating Someone Noticed, I can ID a group of politicians and a nonprofit that sure doesn’t.

      That thing with the policy just amazes me. I watched them argue and debate this subject in a workshop where the public wasn’t present and as it got down to the final moments and they brought the professional staff into the loop, one of those individuals said I call it a blight reduction policy. With that the board took right off and cited the policy the next week in the public meeting (actually shows up in the official record.). Heck if they were going to do that, wouldn’t you think they’d at least get that policy down on paper. I sure would. By that point, they knew it was controversial.

      The other thing is that if they realized how much trouble this was going to cause, I’d bet there would’ve been a more thought out decision process, like passing the ordinances to make it legal before you approved it. How hard is that. It’s something they had to do anyway.

  2. Mike,
    Since you are the expert on all things Elkton, I defer to your expertise. But I would expect they had to have a demolition permit (remember, one of the ‘waivers’ was to free the owner (cecil bank) or buyer (Ingerman Group) of the fees for a demoliton permit. So WHO got the demolition permit, and WHO, if anyone, paid the fee?
    One of the issues adjudicated in court was that the Ingerman group did not actually owne the properties in question. Do they now own them? And just how much money did the pay Cecil Bank for the Collins St. property?
    (Sorry for asking so many questions…. just a bad habit of ours….LOL)

    • Cecil Times: You raise some interesting points. I too was surprised when the Mayor announced in the meeting that it was gone since I haven’t heard any follow-up policy discussions or approvals.

      Right now I’ve got a FOIA request in to examine the materials cited from the trial and some email exchanges the town board cited in its discussions. Last time I did that (request the officials emails), the mayor couldn’t find his. I maintain the emails of public officials are in the public record and I think the Attorney General supports that position. Of course when you ask them about a policy on record retention, you can imagine what you get on that.

      Since the elected officials weren’t in the court room to hear the legal exchanges, they missed material that really would help them with decision making of this type in the future. It would probably be worthwhile for them to pay for a copy of the transcript and read what was said. I almost wish they were in the room to hear the attorneys and in particular the judge. Can you imagine if it had gone to the stage where the political leadership had to testify. Talk about making news. That would’ve done it. Surely there are some learning moments there for the town. Hopefully legal staff fully briefed them.

      Anyway from a citizen journalism standpoint, I thought it would be helpful to see many of the doucments the plaintiffs cited in their case, such as those instructing staff to approve this.

      You definitely raise some questions and I’ll start digging into those immediately. Isn’t it amazing how most media has forgotten to be skeptical of things and keep asking questions.

      We’d really enjoy having some other media (new or legacy) at some of these meetings since there’s so much news there it’s hard to keep up with and additional perspectivss are good. We rarely see print journalists at the town meeting. The other day we were ready to award a thumbs-up to the Whig since they had someone at the meeting, which surprised us. But as soon as they took a photo of a well-deserved award, they departed. The next subject up on the agenda was a 50-second vote to approve a nearly 60% increas in utility rates. But they were gone. Probably had the town’s press release and once they grabbed the photo of the award, they had want they wanted.

  3. OOPS– sorry for the typos on previous post.

    Just checked online property records and Cecil Bank still is listed as owner of Collins property. Also, Ingerman is still not listed as owner of the High st. properties that are to be used for the apartment project.
    (It is possible there could be a brief time lag between closing on a property and its listing in the state records, but they are usually updated constantly.)

    In court, the judge said under the town’s “new” ordinances, the properties would have to be actually owned by the applicant for zoning, waivers, etc.

    That would also seem to apply to the building permits, which the town issued just before the ruling.
    (Even in Elkton, how could the town issue a building permit to someone who doesn’t actually own a property to build something on the property they do not own?)

    • Cecil Times: Interesting questions. Surely they wouldn’t mess this up again would they?

      We wish they would just use a more focused, business-like process for decision making. This thing of just jumping into a complex matter without professionally analyzing the variables and figuring it out keeps repeating itself in Elkton. It repeatedly gets them into a mess.

      . There was the time someone (never was identified) ordered the police to go down and destroy the homeless camp. Settled with the ACLU on that one.

      . There was the time, they wanted to let a developer have a portion of Elk Landing. After lots of noise, discovered that they’d just told the state of MD three years before how valuable that land was as public space so they could get a grant. Then they discovered that the property they wanted to buy in place of this was a brownfield with industrial waste and they wanted to use it as a playground for children. After we came up with memos from the town administration, saying don’t do it, they finally backed off.

      . There was the time they kept voting themselves a raise. Took two years and four approval votes to get it right. First time they voted a raise right after July 1 when they’d approved a budget without the increase in it. Backed up and tried again the next year, and voted for a raise, but found they couldn’t take it until after the next election. Backed up and tried again and finally got a raise through that would go into effect after the next election.

      . There’s this Collins St. case. What’s almost unbelievable, is this property could be an excellent opportunity for Elkton. But the way the town board handled it, there was no way to know. The best point to illustrate this is that after the fact they had to pass laws to make their actions legal. As it was going on and the professional staff was trying to catch up with the political leadership, one of the pros said demonstrate it’s public worth. That’s the way to push it ahead. Gee how insightful, but they still don’t seem to hear that.

      . There’s this liquor c ase now. The town has a problem, but the politicans should ID the problem and provide a general discussion about what they think are the appropriate strategies. Then let those with academic and professional credentials, as well as decades of applied experience, get it right for them. Of course, they’d have to come back to the boar dwith the policy guidance and the politicans could rework it at that stage.

      Of course, as the judge, smiling, remarked to the plaintiffs, they really wanted to this to happen didn’t they.

      Elkton has important issues that need to be addressed. To keep getting mirred in political and legal wrangling doesn’t help them.

  4. In reference to the discussion about the issuance of an Elkton demolition permit, a town spokesperson says that one was issued to the Elkton Senior Appartments, LLC. at the end of July to demolish the Collins Street property. We’re still working on the rest of the story.

    • Cecil Times: After asking for a copy of the demolition permit, received it today. The telephonic info provided on Aug 10th isn’t reflected on the form. Here’s what it says: An application was filed on Dec. 17, 2009 by Terracon Co for the demoliton of a property owned by Cecil Bank. Elkton’s building official, Craig Trostle, approved the permit on July 21, 2010. It also notes that the fees were waived by the mayor & commissioners and that applications are invalid if the authorized work is not started within 6 months after issuance of the permit. We’re still working on this story and the building official is on vacation this week. You’ll have probalby also noted that the town eliminated the spokespersons position, but we’ll follow-up next week.

  5. The hell with waiting for people to get back from vacation. Call Lew George and ask for his comment ON THE RECORD about why the fees were waived – and how the permit was approved WELL after 6 months from application – but that won’t matter, because the 6 months starts from the time it was “approved” on July 21.

    Make Lewis work now that he no longer has an assistant to help out…

    And – call Mayor Fisona – either at work or at home (respectable times, of course) and ask the same question. Now that they don’t have an official spokesperson – remind them that they said the work would be “shared” by others. Tell him Wayne says, “Time to Share!”

    Wayne

  6. Wayne: Another developer was in for today’s meeting and wanted some fees waived. Entirely different discussion this time. The mayor said I don’t kow if we can do that after we got in trouble. This was a nonprofit housing group and they weren’t familiar with the story. Commissioner Jablonski some some comments too and then Norman started offering a legal opinion. Since they added a new ordinance after waiving the fees for the Sr. Housing project and got summons for court, they went back and enacted new ordinances. What he said today was that they could waive the building permits but they coulidn’t waive the hook-ups and permit the transfer to yet another party. Of course, that’s what the citizen watchdogs were trying to tell them from the first if they’d listened. We’ll get a story out on this shortly.

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