Morgantown plans public hearing to discuss Haymaker Forest purchase

MORGANTOWN — Morgantown City Manager Paul Brake confirmed over the weekend that the city plans to move forward with Tuesday’s scheduled public hearing and potential adoption of the $5.2 million agreement with ALP Inc to buy 40 wooded acres known as Haymaker Forest.
The question was raised after a lawsuit filed in Monongalia County Circuit Court on June 15 aimed at stopping the deal, which it calls “malfeasance,” and a “misuse of public funds.”

City residents Richard Vaglienti, M.D. and Judy and Michael Semler are the listed plaintiffs on the suit. Defendants are the City of Morgantown and six members of city council — Rachel Fetty, Mayor Bill Kawecki, Ryan Wallace, Jenny Selin, Deputy Mayor Mark Brazaitis and Barry Wendell.

The plaintiffs are asking for injunctions to stop the deal claiming the city is spending beyond its means and Brazaitis, whose Courtney Avenue property borders the forest, stands to gain financially from the deal through increased property values. A hearing on the lawsuit for the injunctions is set for 2:30 p.m. June 19 in front of Judge Russell Clawges.

The proposed acquisition became a topic of conversation and debate after it was unveiled in a May 31 press release disseminated along with the June 5 council agenda.

During that meeting, city council voted 6-1 to approve the purchase on first reading with Councilor Ron Dulaney the lone dissenting vote. Dulaney is also the only councilor not listed as a defendant in the civil suit.

Haymaker Forest is situated along the municipal boundary, partially located in the city’s 2nd Ward, but mostly falling in the county. It borders the city’s 1st and 6th wards — situated between Courtney Avenue and Southpointe Circle to the east, Dorsey Avenue and Rosemary Drive to the west and East Oak Grove Cemetery to the south.

While there has been a lot of back-and-forth in the media and online about the purchase, it sounds as if Tuesday’s tally will depend to some degree on the number included in the city’s appraisal of the property. The county assessor’s office has the land listed at just over $1.2 million. City administration has said council will have the appraisal in hand when it votes on the matter.

The Dominion Post reached out to Wallace, Selin and Dulaney on Sunday. Wallace said council has been advised not to comment further on the purchase in light of the lawsuit.

Fetty, Kawecki, Brazaitis and Wendell laid out their positions this past week on Morgantown AM.

Kawecki said he supports the purchase for a number of reasons, but not at any price.

“I’m a yes vote right now,” Kawecki said, later adding, “We’re not going to pay anything more than what it’s appraised for. We can’t.”

He went on to say, “If the appraisal comes in lower, that’s what our offer will be.”

City Manager Paul Brake has said there is a limited window to close the deal and that attempting to negotiate down the price could push ALP Inc. from the table, potentially resulting in the land being developed. It has been indicated on a number of occasions that a developer is interested in building on the site.

Fetty said the city should do what it can to prevent the clearing of the forest for development, but she needs to see what the appraisal has to say before coming to a decision.

“Nobody’s happy about it. It kind of takes your breath away, and it feels like we’re being shaken down a little bit,” she said of the price, adding, “I think it would be a shame to lose that property to plop down another Hopecrest, as beautiful as Hopecrest is.”

The major question being raised by critics of the move is exactly how the city will fund the acquisition.

In the initial memo laying out the purchase, Brake recommended placing a levy before the voters next April asking for 2 cents for every $100 of residential property and 4 cents on $100 of commercial property to fund the acquisition, management and preservation of such properties.

According to the schedule laid out in the purchase agreement, the city will be responsible for payments totaling $2.25 million before the votes are cast.

Wendell said he believes the citizens of Morgantown will support the purchase through a levy, though the city could move ahead even if the voters aren’t on board. He said his mind is “pretty much made up” on the issue.

“I think we can still do it even if we don’t get the levy, just not as easily,” he said, explaining “If worst comes to worst, we have other property that we can sell.”

Wendell went on to say that he believes the city could generate additional funds by raising taxes if need be, explaining, “I think we could raise them a little and get away with it.”

Brazaitis has been a vocal proponent of preserving the forest dating back to before his time on council. He said he’s not as worried about the price as he is losing the forest for future generations.

“If it’s $1.4 million, if it’s $2.8 million, if it’s $5.4 million, even it it’s $10 million, for the children in our community and the people forever after us, do you think they’re really going to care about the nitty-gritty we’re going through right now,” Brazaitis said. “They’re going to get a forest they’re going to love forever.”

Brazaitis has said the forest would be a critical component of an urban green belt that would serve both recreation and transportation.

“We’re talking about the broader vision of our community. This is about greenspaces across our city.”

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