Mount Airy officials are saying they were blindsided by the Carroll County’s Industrial Authority’s decision to transfer a 258-acre plot of land back to the county after years of negotiations.
The Harrison-Leishear property, which is bounded by Md. 27 and Boteler roads, was acquired by the county in 2009. In a memorandum of understanding the county bequeathed the property to the Industrial Development Authority under the condition the property be developed within 10 years or be transferred back to the county. The property includes 85 acres of parkland for future development with another 45 acres blocked off for future development. But the property had been in limbo in recent years as negotiations had been slow and stalled.
In January, a plan to annex the property to Mount Airy was unanimously passed and a vote by the Board of County Commissioners to complete the annexation was expected in April. The annexation resolution had been introduced in August and a public hearing of the plan was scheduled for March 23.
The annexation of the property to Mount Airy was expected to give the town more influence in the development of the property. But after 10 years of discussions including a recent plan to develop the property into a 128-acre employment campus, the IDA decided at its Jan. 27 meeting to withdraw and walk away from discussions.
With this vote, the IDA transferred the property back to the county where the commissioners will now decide its fate. All but one member of the five-person IDA board voted to withdraw.
Larry Hushour, president of Mount Airy’s town council, said the town felt like a bride left at the altar upon hearing the IDA’s decision after discussions to develop the property had finally begin to pick up pace.
“After a decade of negotiating compromise, well testing, and legal coordination in December 2019 the town along with the IDA hit high gear in accomplishing the Harrison-Leishear development project so imagine our surprise and disappointment when the IDA told us that they were stepping away from the annexation and derailing the entire project,” Hushour told the board of commissioners in a statement at the commissioners’ Feb. 11 meeting.
Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4 whose district includes Mount Airy, said he was also surprised by the IDA’s decision.
“I have questions that need to be answered, just like the citizens,” Bouchat told the Times.
A statement given to the Times by Susan Chambers, the chair of the IDA board, expressed that the board decided to withdraw ownership of the property due to disagreements with members of the town.
“The IDA worked with the town for 10 years on agreements guiding the development of the property and unfortunately received significant requests deviating from the agreements very late into the process,” Chambers said. “It appears there would be more challenges to move the property forward towards development of an employment campus zone with the town. We didn’t see that progress could be made in a timely manner, it was important to honor the agreement in the MOU.”
At the Mount Airy town council meeting, Hushour expressed concern over the future of the property and that the next developer would not have a “heartfelt allegiance to the citizens of our town.”
“If the IDA vote stands, we have lost 80 acres of parkland and a large amount of water that could have potentially allowed us some control over our infill area. We have lost any say in the future development,” Hushour said.
Tests on four wells on the property were conducted last year and were found to produce nearly 200,000 gallons of water per day.
Hushour described the IDA as the best possible partner to develop the property with the town as the board members are volunteers and residents of the county.
Members of the board are not paid and are appointed by the county commissioners but are autonomous. The board was established to address solutions to unemployment and encourage economic development in the county and is responsible for the development of land given to the board by the commissioners.
Hushour said the town council’s attorney had reached out to the IDA as well as the county commissioners to express the town was disappointed.
Patricia Washabaugh, a Mount Airy council member who had previously spent six years on the planning commission, said she was shocked because the property was “all we ever talked about” and had spent “an awful lot of time working with them.”
Bouchat said that while many citizens expressed interest in the development of the property those who were most involved were the residents of Boteler road, an area adjoining the property, who were particularly concerned over water supply, traffic, and visual pollution from industrial buildings.
“These people have a legitimate concern,” Bouchat said. “They want to protect their quality of life.”
At the commissioner’s board meeting on Feb. 11, Hushour said he had heard through the grapevine that the IDA felt the town would be too difficult to work with and did not believe the town endorsed the project “with full enthusiasm.”
“I will not speculate as to why the IDA walked away, but I do know there has been an increase in expected and legitimate concerns from several county citizens and a couple of town residents.” Hushour said at the Mount Airy town council meeting. “I call these comments and concerns a necessary part of public participation, it would simply not be realistic to think that every comment would be sunshine and flowers on this annexation.”
Hushour said the number of negative comments from town citizens could be counted on one hand.
Some residents have expressed concerns in the past with the development of the property, telling the Times that any development would result in a significant change to what Mount Airy looks like.
“While everyone is curious what prompted the IDA change, why does it matter? If the annexation is dead it is dead. Surely everyone can come together now in agreement that development of whole property is not a good idea,” one member of the Facebook group said.
Hushour believes the IDA’s withdrawal has opened up the property to all types of development possibilities including residential, commercial, residential, or employment.
The commissioners have previously indicated that the land will be developed whether through the IDA or through another developer. Last fall, Bouchat told residents at a meeting that the property will “not stay a cornfield, it will be developed.”
At the commissioners meeting, Hushour asked for the property to remain with the IDA so some type of agreement could be made. In a phone interview with the Times, Bouchat expressed doubt that the IDA would take back the property.