City Council’s decision to purchase just over five acres of land for open space in the west end of the city has sparked controversy.
Council decided to move forward with the purchase of the property that is now owned by Seminary Forest Associates, which owns Seminary Forest apartments, in June. The open space steering committee has included this site as a “priority site” for acquisition by the city.
The history, however, dates to the 1960s when Seminary Forest Apartments was built. At that time, the property was divided into three lots for development. Zoning did not require developing the third lot, which has remained wooded open space. In 1980, the city recommended acquisition of this third lot for parkland. The Planning Commission approved this recommendation but acquisition was not made because of a lack of funding.
In April, a local architect came to the city with a conceptual proposal to develop part of this third lot, owned by Seminary Forest, and another parcel across Ivor Lane, a non-standard street. Bill Brandon is that architect.
“I came to the city and proposed a cluster development,” he said. “The property owners on Ivor Lane have donated half of the property that is required to build a road and we wished to take part of the land now owned by Seminary Forest and combine the two to make a standard street. Right now, emergency vehicles cannot get to the homes on Ivor Lane.”
CITY PLANNING staff told Brandon that they were not inclined to support the concept because of the need to destroy trees. “We have always looked at this land as open space,” said Eileen Fogarty, the director of the department of Planning and Zoning.
Barbara Ross, Fogarty’s deputy director, agreed. “There are many non-standard streets in the city,” she said. “While it is true that Ivor Lane is narrow, it is possible for emergency vehicles to reach the homes that are there. We have always rejected proposals to sub-divide these lots because it would require us to tear down trees and encroach on land that we have always wished to see designated as open space,” she said.
Brandon, not satisfied with the staff’s response, took the matter to the mayor and the city manager. “I met with them to discuss the concept,” he said.
Brandon was accompanied by the owner of the Seminary Forest property. At that meeting, Brandon proposed that he and other interested parties purchase the vacant Seminary Forest lot, with some division of that lot. The city would have purchased a small portion for open space and would have received some additional open space in return for permitting the cluster development, which would have included up to eight to 10 homes.
CITY MANAGER Philip Sunderland asked the Seminary Forest owner if he would be willing to sell the entire parcel to the city for open space. Seminary Forest Associates agreed.
“Not only did the property owner agree but he agreed to sell it to us for about half what it is worth,” Fogarty said. The cost to the city is $750,000. The property is valued at double that. For tax purposes, Seminary Forest Associates will be treated as having donated the difference between the purchase price and the assessed value.
“This is a great deal for the city and a great deal for the property owner,” Fogarty said. “We are getting more than five acres of open space for an amazing price and using our open space trust fund efficiently.”
There are some who disagree. Susan Kelly owns one of the four homes on Ivor Lane. “I don’t really understand how the city can justify the purchase of this property for a park when there is no access and no parking,” she said. “It doesn’t make much sense.”
Kelly wants to subdivide her property and build two homes. “We have been told that we aren’t going to be able to do that because of the non-standard road,” she said. “The city can spend money to purchase land for a park with no access but we are being told that we can’t put two homes on our property when we have sufficient space.”
Kelly’s plan for her property will come to the Planning Commission in October. The current issue, the purchase of the property at Seminary Forest for open space, will come to the Planning Commission on Sept. 9. Unless the Planning Commission’s decision is appealed, the matter will end that night and the city can begin to discuss appropriate uses for the open space.
“We have always envisioned it as passive, wooded space,” Ross said. “It is near Fort Ward Park and people who wish to take a nice nature walk could do so. We have never planned for parking or developing the property for active recreational use.”