In what its mayor calls "a once-in-a-century opportunity," Sykesville must decide whether to control growth at its borders or watch it happen.
Residents will vote Wednesday on whether to annex 138 acres and 15 aging buildings, once part of the Springfield Hospital Center.
"If we do not annex the Warfield Complex, when it is developed -- and it most certainly will be -- the county, state or some other entity will decide who develops it, how it is developed and what uses move in there," said Mayor Jonathan S. Herman. "We will have no power or authority to stop it unless we annex."
After several planning sessions and public hearings, the Town Council approved in September the annexation of the state-owned property along Route 32 known as the Warfield Complex. Opponents launched a petition drive and forced the issue to a vote.
Annexation would give the town control over planning and zoning and allow it to direct the effort to renovate the vacant complex into an employment campus.
In the year since the state approved the town's proposal for Warfield, it has found users -- including Carroll Community College and a New York-based university -- for much of the available space.
Annexation is vital to the stability and economy of the town, Herman said. Once developed, Warfield could provide the town a much-needed industrial base.
"Eventually residential development does not pay for itself," Herman said. "This project will."
New agency envisioned
The town plans to create an independent development authority to protect it from liability for what is expected to be a $20 million project that could take about 15 years. The state has pledged $200,000 for planning and start-up costs and is expected to finance asbestos and lead-paint removal, Herman said.
The project is too costly an endeavor for a town with 3,500 residents and a $1.2 million budget, said Charlie Mullins, a former councilman who helped organize the opposition.
"They keep saying it will cost taxpayers nothing, but we have no commitments except for nonprofits," said Mullins. "The bottom line is the town is out on a limb here with nothing to foot expenses."
Mullins would let the state keep Warfield and direct development.
"Where do you stop protecting your borders?" Mullins asked. "We can't annex everything."
The mayor countered that the town should annex property so close and so critical to its economic development.
"We could not ask for a better location," said Herman. "It is near, and the state is practically giving it to us. Why not take it?"
"We could annex it and never spend a penny, and we would still be better off," the mayor said.
The town hired Frederick W. Glassberg, a consultant who developed an economic model detailing both the money and time involved in the restoration. The plan said the county would reap $450,000 in property taxes annually, with the state getting $1.4 million and the town $135,000 -- about 10 percent of its annual budget. A town-state partnership would share profits from developing the site, with the town receiving about $250,000 annually from leases.
"We have accurate projections of income and expense, and we have isolated the town from risk," said Councilman Michael H. Burgoyne. "This is the way you make this work."
Burgoyne sees no problem filling space at Warfield, which he calls "one of the most marketable pieces of property around."
James E. Lindsey, an accountant who audits the town yearly, also reviewed the model.
"You have engaged competent consultants, who have made realistic, sound assumptions," said Lindsey. "I saw very little downside. You are not spending prior to revenue receipt or commitments."
Both sides of the annexation issue are campaigning until the vote. The town has mailed several pieces of information and drew about 150 people to a public hearing, which will be televised at 7: 30 p.m. Tuesday on Carroll Community Television (Channel 19).
Mullins' group plans one more mailing, a series of questions and answers.
"The town is blinded by its vision of historic buildings," said Mullins. "We cannot let that influence our financial common sense."
The mayor, a self-employed restoration contractor, said the town could not find more solid buildings, and the historic designation allows developers to receive federal and state tax credits for renovation work.
Officials are concerned with one unknown: voter interest. Town elections traditionally do not draw high percentages of voters. Eighty-five voters decided the 1997 municipal election.
"It's like one block of houses decided the fate of the whole town," said Laura Lindberg, town clerk treasurer.
Burgoyne has organized a telephone campaign to remind residents to vote. Officials expect a victory, but want a solid mandate from the 1,815 eligible voters.
"If we don't show this as overwhelming public support for the project, I wonder how much money the state is going to budget to the project," Burgoyne said.
The referendum is from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Town House, 7547 Main St. Information: 410-795-8959.
Pub Date: 2/15/99