JOHNSTOWN -- For the second time in 2019, a major economic development project in Fulton County has been stymied amid pushback from an organized community group fighting against development of rural farmland.
On Tuesday the Fulton County Industrial Development Agency Board of Directors voted unanimously to stop an eminent domain action aimed at obtaining 159 acres of farmland from two parcels owned by the estate of Robert Bowe.
"The eminent domain action was viewed as a way to get control of the site and to allow the negotiation to happen under the oversight of a judge," IDA Chairman David D'Amore said. "Mr. Bowe's asking price far exceeded the multiple appraisals that we'd secured," D'Amore said. "Since Mr. Bowe died, there is no clear next step, but to wait to see who the property falls to."
Bowe, who died on Veterans Day, had wanted $5,000 per acre for the land, a total of $795,000, but county appraisals had valued the property at $3,000 per acre, $477,000.
Bowe's land has been targeted for use as part of the proposed 490-acre Hales Mills Development Area in the town of Johnstown, one of the key projects in Fulton County's 10-year 2026 Vision Development Strategy. The project would include 120 residential lots, retail and office space as well as a public park that would be built on a 69-acre parcel currently owned by Bowe's estate.
The Fulton County Board of Supervisors in a 13-6 vote on May 13 directed the IDA to use eminent domain to secure Bowe's property, but then reversed course on Monday with a 17-0 vote to rescind its earlier action and to order the IDA to "cease and desist" from ever trying to use eminent domain on Bowe's land again.
Northampton Supervisor James Groff introduced the cease and desist language into the Board of Supervisors resolution. He said he thinks eminent domain should only ever be used for necessities.
"It's not just for something when you want it, in other words an intersection or a gas line or a power line — there's got to be a need. I've got two housing projects in the town of Northampton, and they were such good projects that the contractors paid for the property, bought it themselves and built it," he said. "If this was such a great project there'd be a private developer trying to do this."
Prior to their vote, the Fulton County Board of Supervisors heard from public speakers, including Matt Ebert, the founder of a new group called the "Fulton Montgomery Agricultural Development Agency," which had 31 members on its Facebook page as of Tuesday night.
In a Facebook post Ebert called the recent votes killing the eminent domain action "a heroic turn of events."
"FMADA opposed it and we threatened with non-violent civic protest — we were ready to petition as private citizens," Ebert wrote in the post. "This is unusual activity for our area. We enjoy a majority political population, and rarely do both sides of the aisle come together so easily. The environmental health of our county and our food supply may in fact be that unifying aspect. The supervisors are to be thanked for their listening skills, and their willingness to make a big sweeping change to clean up politics in Fulton."
FMADA is the third community group to organize against an IDA project this year. In Montgomery County, two groups — Citizens Against Local Landfills (CALL) and a group called Saving the Town of Mohawk (TOM) — have organized against the annexation of 263 acres of farmland in the town of Mohawk into the city of Johnstown for the purpose of building a Regional Business Park. Members of those groups have made similar arguments to Ebert's, stating the rural character of the land should be prioritized over more environmentally damaging development. D'Amore said he doesn't think Bowe's land has been used for farmland in 25 years. He said the concept of using eminent domain — the government's power to force the sale of land for a court-determined fair price — led to "a groundswell of opposition to the project greater than would likely have occurred if a private developer had purchased Bowe's land.
"This particular thing tapped into latent anxieties that people are harboring about the role of government in their lives," he said.
D'Amore said Fulton County's plan had been for the IDA to purchase the land using county money, covert it into a shovel-ready site and then sell it to a developer who's proposal fit the guidelines of the kind of development the county is looking for, one that would address the long-term need for new housing stock and expand the tax base of the town of Johnstown and Fulton County.
"This process doesn't happen in a vacuum," D'Amore said. "There was public comment opportunities on multiple occasions, most notably what happened last week, and people came out. They heard about it, and they spoke in volume and with passion, and as the political process works, the Board of Supervisors heard that, and they backed off."
When the public was offered a chance to comment at an IDA hearing June 4, about 70 people turned out, most of them in opposition to the idea of using taxpayer money and eminent domain to force the creation of the housing development.
When Fulton County resident Randy Vannostrand spoke at the hearing he received applause when he described how he'd react to eminent domain being used on his property.
"If somebody came to me and said they were going to take my land because they didn't want to pay my price, [my reaction] would be the same as all of your forefathers, greeting them right at the property line with a shotgun," he said.
Town of Johnstown resident Pamela Slavinski offered her opinion on the process at the June 4 hearing.
"I recently moved back to the town of Johnstown two years ago, and since I moved back, my taxes have gone up tremendously. The town of Johnstown's taxes went up 60 percent, and the school district wants another 50 percent, and now you're looking at expanding housing and a park. We all live in a park. This town is a park, and the town residents shouldn't be building housing. I'm tired of having to pay more and more taxes," she said.
Johnstown Supervisor Jack Wilson, who is at a conference in Washington D.C. this week, said he's glad the board voted down the eminent domain process because the public is against it, but he's still hopeful the project will happen because expanding the tax base is the best way for the town and county to stabilize taxes.
"I understand Mr. Bowe indeed had a will, so maybe we'll end up with it in the end, I don't know," he said.
Wilson said he's heard from many people who support the Hales Mills Development Area.
"If you're starting a new development in an area where there is none, there's almost no way you can do it without infringing on some kind of an ag-usage," Wilson said. "If everything stays the same, and there's no development to increase your assessed valuation, taxes are going to go up and up and up."