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Hampstead candidates talk development, North Carroll High School site at election forum

The candidates for office in the upcoming Hampstead election fielded questions on development, the town’s ongoing Main Street revitalization project and what to do with the former North Carroll High School property on Tuesday night at Hampstead Town Hall during a moderated forum sponsored by the Community Media Center and the Times that was well attended by the public.

Mayor Chris Nevin took questions alongside Zach Tomlin, who is running to unseat him, while four of the five candidates for council took questions in a second session. Incumbent councilmen Jim Roark and Dave Unglesbee are running for re-election with Tim Babylon, Daniel Collier and Holly Oertel hoping to find a spot in the two open council seats. Babylon did not attend Tuesday’s forum. The election is on May 14.

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North Carroll High School came up as a question for all the candidates.

The school was one of the three Carroll County public schools closed at the end of the 2015-2016 school year, but the county government, which owns the land, and the town of Hampstead, which controls the zoning, have been at loggerheads about what to do with the building ever since. The building currently hosts the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office Training Academy.

“We control the zoning and will be diligent in what future uses we allow on the property and we fully support the sheriff’s training academy being there,” Nevin told the crowd, but noted that he like he idea of converting the property into a regional sports complex. “Sometimes people only look at it as a cost, but if you look at it as a regional sports center with a turf field, you can turn it into and asset.”

A little more than a year ago, Nevin had told the previous Board of County Commissioners that he hoped a redistricting process could lead to North Carroll being re-opened as a school.

Tomlin said he supported the idea of a sports complex, believing any possibility of reopening the property as a school was past.

“I have spoken with members of the board of education and the county commissioners, and the school isn’t going to reopen,” he said.

The council candidates also supported finding some use for the property, from small offices as proposed by Oertel and supported by Collier, or as Unglesbee suggested, new uses for the auditorium.

“Why isn’t that being used?” he asked. “We could use that for plays, comedy shows.”

The candidates overall responded favorably to one degree or another to the question of residential growth in Hampstead, but some took issue with certain developments, in particularly the proposed 250-home Hampstead Overlook development along Houcksville Road, which some people in the town have publicly opposed. Tomlin took aim at what he said were insufficient efforts to determine if there were toxic chemicals on the site that could be harmful.

“It’s not a question of if there is contamination, it is a question of whether that contamination will cause a problem,” Tomlin said, noting also that he felt the town should first build out infrastructure, and then economic development before focusing on residential growth.

“You don’t have the state’s chief of toxicology stand up here and say, ‘I would live there,’ if it wasn’t clean,” Nevin responded. “That’s a fallacy.”

Nevin noted that there had been little growth in Hampstead since the 2008 recession and that growth was needed to help the town financially.

Unglesbee agreed with Nevin, and noted that infrastructure in the town has been upgraded recently, including the replacement of an aging water main along Main Street.

Oertel said she thought things were moving too fast.

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“I think we need to slow down a little bit with the growth in Hampstead,” she said. “I think we need to take a look at the sites the town already has.”

When it came to the Main Street revitalization project, launched in 2017 and expected to be completed by 2020, changing the face of the town’s downtown, the incumbents were more bullish than the challengers.

Oertel said she felt like the town wasn’t communicating what was happening with the project well enough and that some business owners she had spoken with were not happy with the disruptions caused by the construction work.

“It’s gotten too long and I don’t know what is going on,” she said.

“The project is well past the point of return so there is no point in debating the project,” Collier said. “I do think better communication would be nice.”

Roark acknowledged the downsides of the work, but asked people to think of the completion of the project and how much it would benefit the town and businesses.

“It’s been a pain to us all, but the worst is almost over. Hopefully by fall, we will have smooth roads all the way to Md. 482,” he said.

To view the video of Tuesday’s forum, go to www.carrollmediacenter.org/hampstead-voters-guide or tune into Comcast Channels 19 and 23 and 1086 (HD).

For more coverage all of Carroll’s municipal elections, go to www.carrollcountytimes.com/elections and www.carrollmediacenter.org/2019-municipal-elections.

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