October 2, 2008

Habitat Seeks County Land

By PJ Reilly

Lancaster Area Habitat for Humanity wants nearly 10 acres of wooded, county-owned land on the west side of South Broad Street in the city's southeast to build affordable housing.

The nonprofit Hand's WOODS Foundation - for Wild Outdoor Observatory Designed by Students - has an agreement with the county to use the same wooded land for environmental education.

After discussions before the Lancaster County commissioners Wednesday morning, it seems both projects may be possible, if the commissioners agree to give or sell the land.

"I was really worried before I came to this meeting," Bob Epler, chairman of the foundation's board, said after the commissioners' meeting. "After hearing everything that was said, I think we can work something out so we can both do what we want to do."

The county owns two parcels totaling 9.2 acres between South Broad Street and the School District of Lancaster complex that houses Hand Middle School and Washington Elementary School.

One parcel covering 1.3 acres is assessed at $9,900 and is zoned residential, according to county property records. The records do not state when the county bought it or how much was paid for the land, but they indicate that the county has owned it since at least 1900.

The larger, 7.9-acre property is zoned commercial and is assessed at $242,700. Records state the county bought the land in 1940 for $2,400.

Commissioner Scott Martin said the county has considered this land in the past for a new morgue and other buildings, but it was determined the site would be too difficult to develop because of the topography.

Stacie Reidenbaugh, executive director of the local Habitat for Humanity, asked the commissioners Wednesday to either give the land or sell it to Habitat so the organization can build affordable housing.

Under its homeownership program, Habitat solicits low-income people to help build the new houses, requires them to make a small down payment and then provides the buyers with a no-interest loan.

"Right now in Lancaster County there are thousands and thousands of families in dire need of decent, affordable housing," Reidenbaugh said.

According to Reidenbaugh, Habitat has an agreement of sale on a nearly 1-acre property on the south side of Clermont Avenue that abuts the northern end of the county's land wedged between the dead- ends of Juniata and South Reservoir streets.

Reidenbaugh said her organization wants to build a street connecting the two dead-end spurs and build 40 houses on both sides - 15 semidetached homes north of the new section of Juniata Street and 25 townhouses on the south side.

Because the town houses would occupy only a small strip of land in the woods eyed by Hand's WOODS Foundation, Reidenbaugh said Habitat would gladly allow the foundation to use the rest of the property for its activities.

"That's certainly a compromise we're willing to work on," she said.

Andy Duncan, a former Hand Middle School science teacher, used the woods as an outdoor classroom in the 1990s.

After Duncan left the district in 1999, he said teachers stopped taking classes to the woods.

He formed the Hand's WOODS Foundation in 2006 to make the property a permanent educational resource.

The foundation, which includes members of the Millersville University faculty, city police officers and city and county officials, convinced School District of Lancaster last year to enter an agreement with the county to allow teachers to use the property for their classes.

The district had to agree to include the property under its liability insurance, Duncan said.

The foundation has a $14,000 grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection to develop a curriculum schools could use that incorporates lessons taught in Hand's WOODS.

But Duncan said the grant and the curriculum work were put on hold several months ago when the foundation learned that Habitat was interested in the property.

"We didn't know how that was going to affect us, so we kind of just put everything on hold," he said.

"It looks like we're going to be able to come to a compromise, though."

The county commissioners made no decision on the property Wednesday, but they promised to do so by the end of the year.

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