Dispute delays postal opening Builder hires lawyer; officials have gripes; $2.7 million site vacant; Customers still using downtown facility


The answer to all the traffic, parking and crowding at the Westminster post office is only a mile away in a new $2.7 million building that has sat vacant for nine months.

The post office should be in its new quarters by now, with the problems of a nearly 70-year-old building on the city's busiest street a distant memory. But a dispute with the builder has kept postal business downtown.

Customers, laden with mail and packages, jockey for too few parking places, dodging cars and postal vehicles on their way to the front door.

In Englar Business Park, a more accessible structure that was finished in October remains vacant, its parking spaces painted, its trees planted and 2,000 rental boxes installed.

"This is a test of wills," said Thomas B. Beyard, Westminster director of planning and public works. "Disputes are not unusual in construction jobs. But you work through the issues. The obligation is to get the job done."

Charles J. Frank, a Hunt Valley contractor, built the Havre de Grace and Severna Park post offices without a problem, he said. He delivered the 35,000-square-foot Westminster building in October, but he said, "They just don't seem to want it." Frank, who is owed about $140,000, has hired an attorney.

"The things that might be a problem are so minor, they wouldn't be prevented from opening," Frank said, attributing the delay to "things normally overlooked" such as soil and scratches.

Frank calls the impasse a failure to communicate.

"We are trying to communicate, but the mail is only going one way from us to them," he said.

A letter with all remaining requirements promised by May 15 has yet to arrive, he said.

Officials for the U.S. Postal Service, a federal agency that operates independently, refused to discuss specifics, saying they do not want to jeopardize negotiations by going public. Even Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, who represents the district that includes Westminster, has been unable to learn the cause of the dispute, his staff said.

"We have contractual issues that need to be resolved," said Helen Skillman, spokeswoman for the Baltimore District of the Postal Service. "It is not appropriate to discuss those."

Several postal officials walked through the building last week, drawing up lists of what needed correcting. It was at least the fourth walk-through in the past nine months. A few would-be customers saw the group and drove onto the spacious parking lot.

"You still have to use Main Street," they were told.

That scene is probably replayed frequently, said Westminster Postmaster Kathleen Schultz, because "outside it looks like the building is ready to go."

Drew Kelly, owner of Kelly's Stationery Store across Woodward Road from the new post office, hears questions about it daily and reiterates those queries when he goes to the post office in town. He has no answers either.

"Nobody has any idea what the holdup is, but we all would like to see the building open," Kelly said.

While maintenance crews have kept the grass mowed on the 3-acre site, many of the trees and shrubs have died from lack of attention, Kelly said.

Republican state Sen. Larry E. Haines has looked into the issue after he received inquiries.

"I don't think it is totally the contractor's fault," Haines said. "I hear the building has all the equipment and everything but the staff to run it."

Customers have little choice but to cope with snarled traffic and a small parking lot filled with postal vehicles handling 43 routes a day. Or, they juggle packages and scrounge for change to feed one of the few parking meters on Main Street.

"I lucked out today and got one right out in front," said Calvin Lucy, who makes several trips a day for his company.

Bob Gilfrich, a church treasurer who handles a lot of mail, said, "Getting into and out of here is the biggest issue with this building."

Long lines form in front of two service windows and about 900 customers check their postal boxes.

"It gets really crowded in there and you have to wait in line," said John Dudderar, a businessman who uses the post office several times a week.

Schultz extended hours two months ago to ease the crunch.

She can do little about the congestion inside a building that is less than half the size of the new one, or outside where loading dock and customer traffic mesh. The new building offers employees a separate entrance.

Schultz is willing to wait for a building that meets all postal specifications, she said, but declined to be more specific.

"We own this building so we are not in a situation where we have to move," she said. "But we have outgrown it, and it would be a lot easier to operate in the new building."

Schultz said the move will take less than one weekend, from closing time on a Saturday to whatever time is needed on Sunday.

Moving day has been scratched off a calendar in the employees' section several times. It now reads "Moving -- God knows when."

Pub Date: 6/04/98

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