In a tale of turtles, zoning designations and millions of dollars, officials at Carroll County General Hospital have a potential conflict with the town of Hampstead over a 267-acre parcel within town limits.
Lawyers for the hospital, which owns the property, say it could be worth between $2 million and $3 million if developed. The land, however, includes a 72-acre patch inhabited by endangered bog turtles.
Developing an industrial site around the turtles would be difficult, and given this and other problems, the town wants to change the parcel's zoning designation from industrial to environmentally protected. Such a move would drastically reduce the property's value, hospital officials say.
That presents an immediate problem because hospital officials say they are about to negotiate a price for the land with the State Highway Administration, which needs to buy all or most of the property if it is to build a Route 30 bypass around Hampstead.
By changing the zoning designation, hospital officials say, Hampstead would deprive the hospital of millions of endowment dollars in an unnecessary effort to protect the future of a property that will never be developed anyway.
"This zoning decision would, in our minds, only affect the compensation the hospital could receive [for the land]," said Kurt Fischer, an attorney with Piper & Marbury who is representing the hospital in negotiations with the state.
Hampstead officials said the town can't base its planning on uncertain negotiations between the state and the hospital. Their job, they say, is to make the zoning code reflect appropriate uses for all the land in town. Rezoning the land would be part of the town's efforts to revise its comprehensive plan, a blueprint for land use that is updated periodically.
"Frankly, the hospital's negotiations with the state can't legally have any bearing on our efforts to make a comprehensive plan," said Town Manager Kenneth C. Decker.
That doesn't mean Hampstead leaders won't consider the points hospital officials raised in a presentation to the Town Council on Tuesday night, Decker said.
During that presentation, hospital attorneys offered to transfer control of the 72-acre turtle habitat to the town, which then would place the habitat in the care of an environmental agency or group. In turn, they asked town officials to leave the property zoned industrial as it has been since the 1960s, in recognition of the fact that the land could support some form of clean industry. The exchange of favors would give Hampstead what it wants - control and protection of the turtle habitat - while allowing the hospital to negotiate for top dollar from the state.
The deal would be a good one for the town, the hospital and the turtles, regardless of negotiations with the state, said John M. Sernulka, president and chief executive officer of the hospital.
The hospital has owned the land since 1965, when a Hampstead woman bequeathed it to the newborn community institution. The hospital never aggressively marketed the land to potential industrial buyers, because the wetlands on it and the ever-present shadow of the bypass would have devalued it, Sernulka said.
An official decision about the zoning could be made Feb. 26, during a meeting of Hampstead's Planning and Zoning Commission.