April 26, 2012 | Vol.42 No. 17

Sale of old school lots divides planners

After three years of relative quiet, debate over the fate of old school property on Main Street resumed at the Haines Borough Planning Commission meeting April 19, when commissioners split on a proposal that would classify two lots west of Fourth Avenue for sale “in the near term.”

By a 4-3 margin, commissioners voted for a proposal made by member Robert Venables that would classify lots formerly occupied by the primary school as for eventual sale.

Venables’ proposal was to set aside most of a lot at the corner of Third and Main for a “town square,” designate an alley that straddles the property for parking by RVs and for short-term downtown parking, and retain a lot in the subdivision’s southwest corner for winter snow storage or wood-heat infrastructure.

“The public input we’ve heard is that there’s a public expectation for at least some Main Street lots to be sold and put on the tax rolls. This is consistent with the comprehensive plan’s call for developing the business sector. It satisfies long-range planning and the orderly disposal of borough property,” Venables said.

Business owners Charlotte and Dave Olerud, who own a store across from the two lots that would be sold, wrote the commission seeking the sale of the lots. Charlotte said this week her family isn’t interested in buying the lots, but thinks all of them should be sold, in part to repay $350,000 the borough spent on property to build the new school.

“That was one of the selling points for the school,” Olerud said. She expressed skepticism about saving the lots for a community center or borough office complex. A request for proposals for a community center and office building let last fall referred to the Third and Main lot as a possible site.

“A new borough building on Main Street? Give me a break. Where do we think we’re going to get the money for that?” Olerud said.

At Thursday’s meeting, resident Brian O’Riley said the open lots represented an opportunity for the town to design an impressive city core, anchored by public buildings. “Let’s look at a 50-year plan. We don’t have to build it all in one year. We could spread it out over a 20-year period. We have the potential here to do something grand.”

Planning commissioner Donnie Turner said residents he’s spoken to favor a portion of the property going back into private hands. He said the site was a poor location for a community center due to limited downtown parking.

Turner said he’d like to see the two lots sold at a reasonable rate and require buyers to build upon them within a certain period of time. “To bring people back to downtown you’re going to have to make some kind of incentive. I’d rather sell them for under value and make someone build on them, so you have a business rather than have someone buy them and sit on them for speculation.”

Some communities give away land on the condition that certain types of businesses locate there, he said.

Member Andy Hedden said in a town as small as Haines, a centralized public complex could act as a “feeder,” drawing businesses to cluster around it. “It could have the effect of revitalizing Main Street,” Hedden said. “Is there a rush to make this decision? To put part of it out for private purchase seems a little premature right now.”

Member Danny Gonce said the borough should signal that it wants to promote private business, but to “hedge its bets,” too, as there didn’t seem to be a strong demand for commercial property.

Venables said he didn’t intend his motion to mean the lots would be for sale immediately. “What we’re talking about is a classification and direction. This is motion that would … point the path toward development and is long-range planning. I’d caution anyone to read too much into that. There’s many, many, steps and many, many years and still be near term. This responds to the assembly’s request that we classify that land.”

Member Roger Maynard said he favors getting public land into private hands, but said sale of lands should await completion of comprehensive plan. He suggested a large, central lot in the block to be made a park. “This is a piecemeal approach that we’re doing right now. We don’t really have a plan for the whole block. Maybe we should… take it a little more slowly.”

Maynard said he favored Venables’ plan as long as it doesn’t mean the lots wouldn’t be sold immediately. “I think it requires some more thought.”

Gonce, Maynard, Turner and Venables voted for Venables’ plan. Rob Goldberg, Andy Hedden and Lee Heinmiller were opposed.

Classifying the lots came at the request of the Haines Borough Assembly. Member Debra Schnabel, who pushed for the classification, said it was an attempt to finally resolve the question of whether costs of expanded school property would be recouped by sale of the old property.

“If we’re going to use (all the property) for public infrastructure, the discussion about recouping $350,000 from the sales of it should be put to rest. What I was concerned about was process,” Schnabel said.

Assembly discussion of the fate of old school properties in 2009 triggered the borough’s $40,000 downtown plan. A drawing by planners resulting from the study shows westward school lots used for shops, and eastward ones used for a recreation center, public space and an amphitheater.