Town Again Discusses Heron Park Proposal; No Action Again Taken On Property Sale

Town Again Discusses Heron Park Proposal; No Action Again Taken On Property Sale
Councilman Jay Knerr talks with developer Palmer Gillis about the number of EDUs that should accompany parcel 57. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

BERLIN– A final attempt to negotiate a deal with a local developer for a portion of Heron Park failed this week with no action taken by the town council.

Though Councilman Jay Knerr, one of those who voted against selling Heron Park’s parcel 57 to local developer Palmer Gillis, indicated last week he’d reconsidered the proposal and was interested, he said Monday EDU concerns prevented him from supporting the sale. Gillis, who expressed frustration with the council’s ever-changing sale conditions, said upon leaving he was still interested in helping with parcel 57 if the opportunity arose.

“Please keep us in mind,” he said.

After more than a year of working with Gillis to develop a contract for the purchase of initially a large tract of the park and more recently just parcel 57, the council voted 3-2 on Aug. 28 to end negotiations with the developer. In the days that followed, however, Gillis reached out to some of the council members and met with them at parcel 57, the portion of the park with the old processing plant. Knerr, one of those who met with Gillis, reached out to Mayor Zack Tyndall to express an interest in reexploring the potential sale of the parcel if certain items were addressed in the contract.

As a result, Tyndall, Councilman Jack Orris and Councilman Steve Green wrote the officials who voted to end negotiations—Knerr, Councilman Dean Burrell and Councilwoman Shaneka Nichols—a letter asking them to reconsider the issue at the Sept. 11 meeting. The letter said they proposed a contract that would set the sale price at an increased $1.2 million, stipulating the project would include a residential component and would provide the town with two of the 36 EDUs of sewer capacity associated with the parcel.

The letter also noted that engineers had been on site following the Aug. 28 decision and said it was unlikely the town would be able to demolish the entire structure with its $500,000 strategic demolition grant.

“To Mr. Gillis’s credit he doesn’t take no for an answer evidently and reached out to many of you to see if there was a glimmer of hope of revisiting this,” Green recapped Monday. “The council was notified there had been a potential reconsideration.”

Green, who was disappointed in the council majority’s decision to end negotiations with Gillis, said he’d been excited to hear that Knerr had reconsidered. He said he’d heard chatter that the item was on the agenda this week because the mayor wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“That’s really not fair,” he said, adding that he’d worked with Tyndall and Orris on the letter because Knerr indicated he was in fact open to a deal with Gillis. “When we heard there was a glimmer of hope for reconsideration I think it was worth a letter to our colleagues. There were some new pieces as well. I think the demo continues to be the big question mark.”

He pointed out that the roughly $550,000 demolition estimate was three years old.

“A ton of stuff’s happened in the economy in the last three years that makes that a hugely ballpark number,” Green said.

He added that he truly believed working with Gillis on the demolition and development of parcel 57 was the best way to move forward, as the town had no idea how much of the building it could demolish with the funding it had. He said that was why he’d supported bringing the issue back up two weeks after the council’s vote to end negotiations.

“It’s not because we’re immature and won’t take no for an answer,” he said. “I really believe the risk is not worth the reward here.”

Orris said he felt the issue was too important to not reconsider.

“Otherwise I wouldn’t have entertained bringing it back,” he said.

Nichols acknowledged that she had met with Gillis at Heron Park and had then talked more with constituents.

“I’m still a no,” she said.

When asked about demolition, Gillis said he planned to undertake a partial demolition of the site, as some portions of the structure could be repurposed. He pointed out however that interest rates and construction rates had gone up in recent years.

“At the end of the day we don’t want to leave anything on the table,” Knerr said.

Knerr said he wanted the contract to stipulate that the entire $1.2 million price would be used to pay down the town’s $2.3 million debt associated with Heron Park.

“That doesn’t need to be in the contract,” said David Gaskill, the town’s attorney.

Knerr said he also didn’t want whatever Gillis built to compete with downtown shops. Gillis agreed.

Knerr said he also wanted to sell Gillis the property with five EDUs, not the 30-plus that were currently associated with it.

“Five barely gets me a warehouse,” Gillis said. “I thought the town wanted something more energetic than a warehouse.”

He said EDUs typically accompanied a property.

Burrell said he had mixed emotions about the letter the council majority had been sent. He said the council had debated the potential sale of parcel 57 to Gillis two weeks ago and had voted 3-2 to end negotiations.

“Call me naïve, I walked out of here thinking the thing was done,” he said.

Burrell indicated he felt council members should conform with a decision made by a council majority. He said that while he’d heard good things about Gillis he didn’t feel this was a good deal for the town.

Tyndall said the issue had only been brought back up for reconsideration because someone had reached out and said they wanted to reconsider.

“If there’s not a willingness to change I think it’s a done issue,” he said.

Knerr asked Gillis if he was willing to negotiate regarding EDUs. Gillis said he was but said Knerr would have to throw out a figure.

“I’m not going to negotiate against myself,” he said, expressing frustration that every time he’d come to meet with the town he’d thought they’d come to an agreement. “Every time it changes we have to reinvent the wheel again.”

He said officials kept changing their minds and couldn’t decide what they wanted for the park property.

“Because you’re speaking with so many different voices you’re doing a disservice to your taxpayers and shooting yourself in the foot with a circular firing squad,” he said.

When Knerr suggested five EDUs accompany the property, Gillis said that was completely unreasonable. He said he didn’t mind leaving the town three of the 36 EDUs for the other Heron Park lots.

“Everybody is sitting here with bated breath,” he said. “What does Jay Knerr want?”

Gillis did not entertain Knerr’s suggestion of having 10 EDUs accompany the property.

“We came here in good faith because we thought we had an agreement last week…,” Gillis said. “You guys keep moving the goal post.”

Knerr said negotiations didn’t end until the contract was signed.

“Well I don’t misrepresent my word when I give it to somebody,” Gillis responded. “Whether it’s in writing or not. There’s the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. I live by the spirit of the law.”

Resident Tony Weeg asked how the town was going to finance the demolition of the processing plant if a deal wasn’t made with Gillis. He said negotiating on the EDUs was frivolous and that the project Gillis proposed was good for the town.

“Think of the quagmire we’re going to be building our skate park in if this project doesn’t happen,” he said. “Who wants to put a skate park in a trash dump?”

A Baker Street resident said he felt there could be better options for the site and asked officials not to make a decision Monday.

“This is very heated,” he said. “There could be better ideas.”

Resident Mary Hedlesky said the portion of the park Gillis wanted to buy was less than 10 acres. She said she was also worried the town’s grant funding was in jeopardy because the grant had been designed to encourage economic development and job growth.

Resident Marie Velong pointed out Gillis kept coming back to the town seeking to buy the parcel.

“Something is worth something,” she said.

Resident Matt Stoehr said the project represented not only the opportunity to eliminate a dilapidated building but a chance to increase the town’s tax revenue. He said the town hadn’t been able to afford the employee raises officials had wanted to give this fiscal year or the new staff person needed in its planning department.

“We have an opportunity to bring additional funds to our town with a good project,” he said.

Tyndall thanked Gillis for his efforts to work with the town, including increasing the proposed purchase price of the parcel.

“This takes care of over half the debt service on the property,” he said.

Gillis said that while he was frustrated with the town’s latest change in position he closed the conversation by stressing that officials were welcome to reach out to him in the future.

“I probably know this building better than anybody in this room,” he said.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.