ELKTON TOWN HALL – Dec 16 — This evening the mayor and commissioners formally confirmed a decision the board made at the last workshop. The approved action waives major facilities fees in connection with a Cecil Bank owned building at 110 Collins Street and allows those credits to be transferred to a senior citizens project at 142-149 E. High Street.
Except that the proposal had been reframed as a blight reduction program, it was largely a replay of the workshop as the board got the consensus decision they’d made earlier entered into the official record. However, the major exception was after the fact citizen input, which changed the characteristic of the proceedings.
When officials first considered the Cecil Bank request last week, a member of the professional staff was shown the letter the political leadership was debating near the end of the discussion. After viewing the document and becoming familiar with the issue, the staff member had a recommendation for the board. Don’t call it a fee transfer, frame it as a blight reduction program since that connects it to a community benefit. Most of the board, agreeing that was a better way to present the request, asked the town administrator to prepare the documents.
The Collins Street property is a 10 unit complex that is vacant and “not suitable for habitation,” according to the town administrator. For demolishing the building, the municipality will waive $150,000 in fees, which are to be credited to the Ingerman Group if they acquire the property from Cecil Bank. Ingerman group is developing the 60 unit senior apartment complex.
Commissioners Repeat Workshop Discussion
After the administrator presented the proposal, the commissioners rehased their previous discussion. “If they choose to take that blighted area and do something for the town, it’s a great program,” Commissioner Jablonski emhasized. “The blight reduction program we’re going to start is a great program. I see it as only helping neighborhoods and other areas,” she continued. Commissioner Piner concurred: “The building is an eye sore and whatever action we have to take to get it down is great.” “I agree with Earl,” Commissioner Givens said. Mayor Fisona added, “making an investment of $150,000 is worth putting into that neighborhood.”
Commissioner Storke opposed the action. “The town code does not address the transfer of fees from one interest to another. I took an oath of office to enforce the town code and if we’re going to change the code fine.” On the subject of Elkton’s new blight reduction program, he said, “I haven’t seen this policy about blight that has come about.” With the discussion continuing, the commissioner remarked, “how do we put a parking lot in a residential section? Currently it’s zoned residential and a parking lot is not permitted. I thought these were rules to protect the community?” Staff confirmed that parking lots are not allowed in the Collins Street area.
Before the point had been made that the zoning ordinances don’t allow a parking lot, Commissioner Givens asked the developer about plans for the parcel. “Initially we’d just use it as satellite parking for the senior building,” was the reply. Since the official didn’t think seniors would use the lot he commented: “I question whether that would be a good use.” The exchange caused Commissioner Jablonski to inquire if it could be used by others, say the church or barbershop, for parking and the answer was something could be worked out.
Fee Waiver Catches Attention of Citizens
This board action got the attention of the audience since the public was unaware of the considerations the political leadership was discussing. Former Mayor Crouse raised his hand to offer input but Mayor Fisona refused to recognize him, while a few minutes later he slammed the gavel when an audience member mumbled something. When the mayor called the question, the seconds started ticking by as he waited for a motion and a second, while mumbling was heard from the audience. All the board, except for Commissioner Storke approved of the action.
Soon it was the public’s turn to offer comments. Bob Litzenberg, talking about other eyesores and properties around town said, “you’re not concerned about those, but you’re concerned about this one. Condemn the properties and the owner pays for it, not the town.” He also inquired about how much the town had waived in fees for this project and “how can Earl vote on this when he’s on the bank board?” That caused Commissoner Piner to remark: “If that’s a personal question to me you can send it to the Ethics Board. I’m on several boards and I vote based on my opinion not what board I am on.” A staff member squeezed in a fact, the town had waived $210,000. The exchange continued. “No one has any problem with senior citizens but the way this has been rammed down your throat is the problem. And you Joe, you say you want to help them [Ingerman Group]. Help some of these senior citizens when our water and sewer rates go up. We’re going to be paying for what these people aren’t paying for.”
Former Mayor Crouse came forward to ask for clarification on the board’s action. “Who owns the property or don’t you know? You just gave $150,000 or whatever to a company that doesn’t own the land and doesn’t have a plan.” The political leadership started discussing whom they’d given the waiver to so the town attorney picked up the ball on that one, which caused Jim to remark I’m trying to ask the board. “What if 10-years down the road, this company decides we’ve had enough of Elkton, what happens then? You don’t do away with blight by putting a parking lot in. All you’ve done now is provide a new place to hang out and the chief will have to put a car there,” the former mayor of 20-years observed.
About this time Commissioner Piner responded to Jim, “If you’ve got something you want the board to check into say it, we’re going right back into what we voted. I’m just making this clear, I’m not here to debate. . . . If you have something you want to state say it . . . .” The response from Jim, “Why did you vote on something if you don’t know what you voted on?” With the town attorney stepping in and out of exchange and the mayor occassionally tapping his gavel, Commissioner Jablonski entered the conversation, which had become heated: “We spent over an hour at the workshop discussing this so we really did discuss this, so it’s not something we’re not aware of.” To that the former mayor remarked “You don’t publish your minutes until after the meeting. The public doesn’t know what action you took,” to which Commissioner Jablosnki said, “We didn’t take any actions, we took it tonight.”
Still the point was the same. It is hard for citizens to stay informed prior to decisions so constructive input can be provided for the commissioners’ consideration. The minutes of this meeting will not be shared with the public for several weeks.