MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — City Council members in Morgantown have a significant decision facing them later this month — and so, potentially, do their constituents.
A public hearing is scheduled June 19 on the acquisition of land by the City of Morgantown that would potentially complete the city’s desired “green belt.”
40 acres of land, known as Haymaker Forest, sits adjacent to three city wards and is primarily outside of the city limits. The city voted 6-1 on first reading Tuesday to support a $5.2 million proposal to acquire the land from ALP, Inc.
“What I’m proposing is that establishing a much broader program than the Haymaker Forest,” Morgantown City Manager Paul Brake said Thursday on WAJR’s Morgantown AM. “Where I’ve worked previously in a community, we had a land preservation program. I saw it from the inception. I did not come up with this, but it worked very, very well.”
The city has no current plans to develop the land, with Deputy Mayor Mark Brazaitis suggesting the reserve land create a “green belt” around the city. Brazaitis’s Courtney Avenue property borders the land.
Brazaitis, still in his first term on Morgantown City Council, campaigned last year in part on preserving the Haymaker Forest.
“It’s an extraordinary piece of property,” he said Monday on Morgantown AM. “It would be Coopers Rock, basically, within the city. You can go three minutes, you can take a walk into the forest as opposed to driving half an hour out of town.”
Two developers separately told WAJR-AM that they would not pay more than $30,000 per acre for the land. The City of Morgantown is currently offering $130,000 per acre.
“Land is not cheap in this town,” Brake said. “There’s not a lot of it, and so it is supply and demand. Based on the scarcity of it, that’s what drives up the price.”
According to Brake, an appraisal of the land is expected to be completed before the public hearing.
Meanwhile, Brazaitis has been an advocate for urban green spaces, suggesting that they have numerous potential uses and benefits. He has cited the potential for green space to help defer costs on future natural disasters, provide natural protection from weather events, increase recreational activity within city limits, and help limit urban sprawl.
“We’re a growing city,” Brazaitis said. “We’ve talked about this a lot. We’re a growing city, and growing cities are desperate to hold onto their green spaces.”
The current contract, if approved, would require a $500,000 payment at closing. Paul Brake has suggested a levy be placed on next April’s ballot to raise the necessary funds to pay for the acquisition long-term. The levy would then need to be renewed every five years.
“There is value of protecting the stabilization of neighborhoods, to continue to provide recreation opportunities, to give us the opportunity to better manage that land so we can put it in the city zoning in that regard,” Brake said. “In that respect, it wouldn’t be brought forward if this wasn’t something that was worthy of consideration.”
City Councilman Ron Dulaney was the only dissenting voice Tuesday night, noting that a number of his concerns with the deal were unaddressed.
“For me, the issue that I began to ask immediately is how do we finance this, how do we pay for this,” he said Wednesday on Morgantown AM. “That’s where my mind immediately went. How can we financially do this? Is it feasible to financially do this?”
In many respects, Dulaney said this is an issue of opportunity cost. Is this an investment worth making at a time when the City has a number of unfunded mandates looming in the next several years?
Additionally, Dulaney described the process, where voters wouldn’t be able to vote on a funding mechanism until after the purchase was made by Council, as “backwards.”
“Where I got hung up with this is, if we think about our constituents or our voters as co-signers on this, we are basically committing to taking out a loan before we have them on board with us,” Dulaney said. “And, to me, that seems risky.”
He also noted some concern with the overall price — and whether this was the best way to spend more than $5 million in taxpayer dollars on land that hadn’t been appraised before Council’s first reading on June 5.
“Appraisers don’t move that quick,” Brake said. “In order to purchase property, you could be looking at a several month process. It’s a matter of contracting someone what their availability is, what they can do to go out and look at this type of property. This is a complex type of appraisal and to come up with comparables, it’s based on availability and time.”
Council, however, is moving very quickly towards a decision. Both Brazaitis and Brake have suggested that, due to looming development, a deal needs to be made by the end of June.
“If we don’t move on this right now, we’re not going to have this opportunity again,” Brake said.
If voters choose to reject an excess levy, two contingency plans have been discussed. First, council could sell off parts of — or all of — the Haymaker Forest if a levy fails next year. They could also sell other property, but Dulaney doesn’t necessarily see the benefit of trading off property — particularly additional green spaces.
“If it’s about a green way, that makes a little more sense to me,” Dulaney said. “If it’s about interconnecting, then this is an essential piece that makes sense to me. But if we’re talking more generally about green space, then I don’t quite get the logic.”
The speed with which the City is moving has primarily been attributed to a belief that development of that land is nearly a certainty.
“If we don’t purchase it now the trees are going to be knocked down, a development of unknown nature is going to put in there and it will be lost forever,” Brazaitis said. “The community will lose it forever. You can’t grow a hundred-year-old forest back in a day.”
Of note, there are limited examples of green belts, green space, and urban growth boundaries in the United States. Morgantown would be among the few, though research suggests there are questions over the actual quantifiable benefits.
“Land like this that then becomes developed that connects to existing neighborhoods that adds additional traffic and congestion, where we have no opportunity to plan for it — because, again, this property right now is not in the city,” Brake said. “Again, we do not have any control over the land.”
Brazaitis describes the property as “magical.”
“This is how I was known in the community and am known in this community,” he said. “So I have made this promise clear from the very beginning. This is something I was very upfront about. This is a magical place. I know that. I live near it. It’s a magical place, and I want everyone in the city to be able to enjoy that magic.”
Academic studies, including one by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, have suggested significant value of urban green spaces in cities, but have also suggested additional work needs to be done to quantify that value.
The study did not address other concerns, like those posed by economists Tim Harford and Mark Pennington. Harford said green belts can reduce the supply of housing, thereby driving costs up and preserving the status quo. Pennington suggests that green spaces are primarily only used by those living within walking distance, potentially excluding a significant portion of the populace.
Whether or not the value of the land to the city as a green space (or anything else) can be quantified at $5.2 million is one of several questions Council members will face when they make their decision later this month.