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Critics of the sale of 5 acres of the Elizabeth Campus say a deal is a deal. Others say that was 15 years ago.
Sunday, March 31, 2013
It’s a 52-acre sore spot right in the heart of Salem.
Most know it as the Elizabeth Campus, a chunk of land Salem bought from Roanoke College and in 1998 rezoned most of it for business development. But that came only after hours of the most contentious public hearings in anyone’s memory and a compromise that the remaining land would be left alone, or converted into parks and walking trails.
Fifteen years later, the Salem City Council has entered into an agreement to sell another 5 acres of the land for $500,000 to a Florida developer who wants to build medical offices on the property. That has raised questions of whether that earlier compromise has been violated and whether the city was bound by it to begin with.
It’s also revealed how fleeting both memories and verbal promises can be.
“There was a lot of blood spilled over this,” said Cynthia Munley, who opposed the rezoning in 1998 and at a tension-filled moment during the public hearing was escorted from council chambers by police. “And I think the city came to a compromise and they touted it and they should fulfill it.”
As it turns out, council meeting records indicate there was plenty of talk of protecting 18 acres of the Elizabeth Campus, but it didn’t include the land up for sale now.
A review of minutes from meetings about the rezoning confirms that both then-Mayor Sonny Tarpley and Vice Mayor Alex Brown mentioned that the remaining land would be left zoned residential and “remain in green space.”
Yet for all the talk, the council never took any action to codify its intent to protect that land. In 2011, the current council sold 4 acres of it to the Salem Montessori School.
The 1998 rezoning does call for two areas on the campus that were designated as storm water retention areas to be also developed as parks. It also requires the “ancient grove of trees” in the center of the campus to be “preserved.”
According to Salem City Attorney Steve Yost, those elements are the only promises that matter. What council members said on the dais, or even in moving council to pass the ordinance, carries no legal weight.
Even accepting the language in the minutes, he doesn’t know what it means for land to “remain in green space,” he said.
Current Vice Mayor John Givens, the only member of the council today who also served in 1998, said, “I have no qualms voting for selling this property with the proffers that we have … because we need the tax revenue. I have never seen any open space bring tax money into the city.”
Givens didn’t recall the talk of protecting part of the land, except as “more of a possible suggestion that it could be looked into.”
“But how can you possibly handcuff a future council 15 years later?” he asked.
Short of a conservation easement, which protects land in perpetuity, Yost said, one council can’t bind a future council.
Even if the 1998 council had taken action to protect that 18 acres, he said, any subsequent council could pass its own legislation to change it.
Brown, the former vice mayor, said he would never have supported tying the hands of a future council over how to use city-owned land.
Mayor Randy Foley said the council shouldn’t just “flippantly ignore” the intent of an earlier council, but “we can’t be held to a promise that’s not codified.”
Councilwoman Lisa Garst noted that every condition in the rezoning has been honored and upheld.
“We understand the value of the property both as a commercial and a community asset,” she said. “I would love to see those areas designated storm water management … refined and beautified. The sad truth is that the city budget is extremely tight.”
Munley said the lack of binding action by the council isn’t the end of it.
“They made promises and I would like to at least have them fulfill their promises,” she said. “It’s a matter of trust.”
Munley and many others who fought the rezoning in 1998 had hoped to protect the entire 52 acres. Instead, they’ve seen what they call haphazard development on the site, with buildings that for the most part could be more attractive. It’s not the carefully planned mixed-use development she hoped for from the compromise.
Including the 5 acres in the current purchase agreement, the city still owns a little more than 25 acres of the site, city real estate records indicate. About 4 acres of that is the parking lot for the Salem YMCA. About 25 acres has been sold and is home to ACE Private Risk Services, Virginia Orthopaedics, OneBeacon Insurance and the Montessori school.
If the purchase agreement is executed, and an additional parcel that was sold a few years ago but bought back by the city is also sold, that will leave about 13 acres of city-owned, undeveloped land on the site.
Munley said the remaining land is what’s left between the developable sites, not planned green space.
“We get the dregs,” she said.
And, she added, the promised walking trails have yet to be built.
City officials applied for a grant to get the trail development started a few years ago, but didn’t win it.
Now, the developers of the land in the purchase agreement, Florida-based Capital Development Group and its Salem partner, Elizabeth Medical Park, are hoping to work with Roanoke College to build the trails with private funding. The college still owns a large part of the campus adjacent to the part the city bought.
A preliminary plan would install nearly 2 miles of 8-foot-wide trail made from recycled asphalt, said Dan Friesland of Elizabeth Medical Park.
But the actual sale of the land hasn’t happened yet. CDG and Friesland have a six-month purchase option during which they’ll make sure the project is worth building. They have plans for at least one and perhaps two 17,000-square-foot buildings with office space to be leased or sold as office condominiums to mainly medical professionals. Other professional services, such as architects, engineers or attorneys, might also locate there.
The buildings must be brick with a hip roof, according to the agreement.
If the land hasn’t been developed within two years, the city can buy back for the same $500,000 for which it was sold.
If developed, Friesland said, the project would produce $200,000 a year in real estate tax revenue alone for the city, and payroll taxes of that much or more.
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