ST. CLAIRSVILLE - Belmont County commissioners held a lengthy debate at last week's meeting concerning a long-anticipated project to encourage development in the area, with two commissioners noting reservations and unanswered questions.
The debate was kicked off by a motion to hire Isaac Wiles Burkholder & Teetor as outside council to advise and represent the commissioners during ongoing negotiation with the Belmont County Transportation Improvement District concerning proposed projects.
In the end, Commissioners Ginny Favede and Charles R. Probst Jr. voted in favor with Commissioner Matt Coffland voting in opposition.
Coffland said he was opposed to the decision if the firm would be asked to in any way stop or alter funding to the planned mall interstate 70/Mall Road interchange development project.
Probst said the firm would advise commissioners of any legal options from the Transportation Improvement District to the county, including the inter-agreements that will be presented to the board.
Coffland said the county should continue to conform to an interim agreement sent to ODOT, assuring them that the commissioners remain committed to the project and have earmarked funding for the project. In the interest of ensuring funding was in place, the letter requested a specific timeline be provided for the need of local funding, so that the transaction could be processed timely. The commissioners' letter also requested a list of all the project investors and the amount committed.
He noted the TID will shortly be sending inter-government agreements between the commission, Richland Township, St. Clairsville and the county. He stressed the importance of reviewing those documents and moving forward with the interchange development project.
Probst observed that the letter was dated June 5 also requested that the investors inform the entire board of commissioners of the amounts each was investing, as well as the timeline. He said this had not yet occurred and said an attorney's legal advice to the county would be useful to the county's interest as new developments occur.
"I'm trying to find out everything I can to make an informed decision," he said, adding that he has not yet prepared a vote of yes or no. "I'm just trying to find out and do what's best for the county and moving the county forward."
He add that the inter-governmental agreement will call for the transfer of $1.9 million from the county to the project.
"That's a lot of taxpayers' dollars, and I want to make sure other people are going to contribute and benefit from this project," Probst said. "I don't know enough to have a vote on this at this time. I need information."
Commissioners Coffland and Favede sit on the TID board. Coffland serves as vice chair. He emphasized the potential benefit of the project and noted there was some concern that some members were no longer enthusiastic about proceeding.
"This project can bring millions of jobs, retail," he said, adding that development on the Stein and Cafaro properties hinges on a $14-16 million road project, with part of the funding earmarked to connect Route 40 to I-70. He said the Cafaro company had committed millions.
He added that the county's commitment of about $2 million, enthusiastically agreed on by Commissioners Favede and himself several years ago, was invaluable in moving the project forward.
"I feel this is a major investment in Belmont County, because you know our county runs on retail and I think we need a retail base to continue," he said.
"The message I would like to send that we are still committed to the developers," he said. "That we are committed on this project, because they are looking at putting millions of dollars into this project."
Coffland said the final alignment will be held Tuesday, 1:30 p.m., specifying where the road will be and how it will run. This includes connecting the 40 to I-70, a $2 million project. Cafaro will put in a roadway system from the mall to I-70 for two connectors. He said the earmark from the connector road will go for an overpass. Track funding will help purchase a right of way that Cafaros will turn over to the state, county or city.
"We have made major progress," Coffland said.
Probst agreed that the county stands to benefit from a successful project, but added that he wanted more information, specified in writing.
"I want to see commitments," he said, noting that this project has been on the table for several years, without significant progress until recently. He added that the project will not go into the Track system for funding until March.
Favede said that while she supports the project, she expressed reservations about detail and recent proposals for the use of county funds. She agreed that she had worked toward the project even prior to her election as a county commissioner, noting the annexation of the Robert Stein property to the city.
"When Commissioner Coffland and I first came into office in 2009 Belmont County was in absolute awful shape. Belmont, like every other county in the state of Ohio was suffering financially from the recession but Belmont was also struggling from a significant loss of sales tax revenue," she said. "At this point we, Belmont County, were desperate; absolutely desperate to create an ability to rebuild our county. We were convinced that opening up this property would allow our county to attract new retail and business."
However, she said the oil and gas industry has changed the face of the county overnight.
"We have construction and new developments happening all over the county. We are no longer desperate. I will note that none of these developments have county money in them," she stated. "Major excavating is being done; new roads are being built without county dollars. I now struggle to understand why the county needs to spend its last infrastructure dollars on this road when other developers are funding their own projects."
In addition, she voiced concerns that the TID chair intends to use county dollars toward the city of St. Clairsville's earmark so that their project could be completed more quickly and without their section of the road being federalized. Favede said she is opposed to the county giving St. Clairsville $1.9 to benefit the city. She said her concerns have not been met with a response from the TID and the TID had drafted an inter-governmental agreement without commissioners' consent, committing county funds to the entire cost of all acquisition activities, performed by the TID or its agents, including administrative and legal services, to acquire the required real property interests necessary for the project.
Favede said she opposes a vote that would take away the Robert Stewart property by eminent domain.
Coffland protested that the $2 million is one part of an larger overall project and should not be considered as .
"The $2 million is for construction," he said. "It's part of the total project."
Favede suggested the county holds the funds until there is a guarantee of the project's completion. She later added that after consulting with the attorney she was advised that the letter to ODOT is not a binding legal agreement.
Guest Michael Bianconi inquired why a local attorney was not used. Probst noted the wide range of businesses and communities involved in the project might create a conflict of interests.
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