Fight continues over senior living project
Warren County Council on Monday approved a series of documents in support of the Eagles Crest downtown senior living proposal.
And an attempted motion to rescind a constructing staging agreement was rejected.
Opposition to the project, first presented in 2017, has intensified in recent months as the developer, Hudson, seeks to finalize its funding and move ahead with construction of the facility on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Liberty Street.
But it wasn’t without in excess of an hour of debate and a series of machinations under Robert’s Rules aimed at scuttling progress on the project.
The first issue to resolve was to get an opinion from the city’s solicitor on whether Councilwoman Wendy McCain’s motion last month to rescind the staging area agreement was appropriate.
Solicitor Andrea Stapleford explained that a motion to rescind cannot be undertaken on a contract and said it’s her opinion that the agreement for the staging area — the use of city parcels during construction — is a contract. Thus she said a motion to rescind is “not applicable or appropriate.”
The staging area would use city-owned parcels in the area of the riverfront during construction of the project.
Phil Caudill, owner of Bent Run Brewing, presented an additional seven pages of petitions in opposition to the project.
“I hope and think now you’ve heard enough opposition and given it more thought about how that parking can affect and harm us businesses,” he said. “I would like you not to rescind. I would like you to terminate on 30 days notice and come up with a better plan.”
Mayor David Wortman asked if his business or another business had approached the city about leasing these parcels because they were essential to the business.
“I didn’t know they weren’t leased or I would have,” Caudill said.
McCain then asserted that the city has never adopted Robert’s Rules of Orders, which Stapleford and Executive Secretary Teena Leary both disagreed with.
McCain then pivoted to asserting that the council has “been inconsistent in following Robert’s Rules. … I would like to consider that my motion is still on the table.”
She quickly, though, shifted from the motion to rescind to the motion to terminate pursuant to the terms of the agreement.
Councilman John Wortman noted that the motion to terminate was not on the agenda, which meant acting on it would have put the city afoul of the state Sunshine Law.
Stapleford affirmed that the motion to terminate couldn’t be added, calling it a way to “skirt the motion to rescind.”
“I’m not trying to skirt anything,” McCain said. “It feels like a technicality to not actually disclose what people think about the item. (I’m) trying to do what the people from the community have asked us to do, which is reconsider the parking lease. Terminating the agreement is actually listed on the contract as a viable option.”
She claimed the council is attempting to use parliamentary procedure “as a kind of cloak to hide behind.”
That then set the stage for debate on four documents relative to the project that were up for council consideration — a developer’s agreement, stormwater operation and management agreement, temporary construction and perpetual easements and a memorandum on parking space and easement issues.
The developer’s attorney, Ronald McCall, said a “variety of agreements” have already been approved with the city. The reason these documents were before council, he said, was for the firm to be able to obtain a “title insurance commitment.”
He added that the developer’s agreement and stormwater agreement provide financial security to the city.
“Why would the city not want to do that? It makes no sense to me,” McCall said.
Opponents to the project have put their eggs into the basket of a federal historical review process, Section 106.
McCall said he was fine with making approval of the documents contingent on the completion of that review.
Council then opened up the floor for public discussion.
“Why would we enter more agreements when this Section 106 isn’t done,” Kevin Sheldon said. “No one on this council has told me what good this project is going to do for the city. It just doesn’t make sense. This is going to be your legacy here. We’ve got to stop these stupid ideas, excuse me, unpopular ideas. It’s going to ruin us.”
Tonya Mitchell-Weston, president/CEO for the county’s Housing Authority, said they were contacted by the developers in 2017.
“In 2017 we made it very clear — we do not have a need for more affordable housing,” she said, noting there are 30 vacancies at the Conewango Towers, eight at Canterbury Court and three at Rouse Manor.
“Our population is declining,” she continued. “We do not have the seniors to occupy more housing.”
Kelley Coey, Hudson’s director of development, said that misconceptions about their market studies “has gone on and on, meeting after meeting.”
“We wouldn’t be coming here and looking for a project when there is no need,” she said. “There is a big difference between housing authority and tax credit housing.”
Council handled each of the documents in a separate motion that required final Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency financing, which includes the Section 106 process.
McCain claimed that Hudson is required to wait for the Section 106 process and that “part of the Section 106 process is for Hudson to consider an alternate location.
“Hudson’s blatantly not following the rules,” she said.
She reminded the council that they all “took an oath” to be responsible to the needs of the city.
She then made an amendment to postpone action on the motions to approve each of the documents. The first one failed 5-2 — with McCain and Phil Gilbert the “yes” votes — while the other three failed for lack of a second.
The motions to approve the documents each passed 5-2 with McCain and Gilbert voting no.
“We keep signing these agreements. … just no,” McCain argued. “If you can’t implement this until the 106 meeting occurs, why would you sign anything? That’s better protection.”
The issue of whether Hudson looked at alternate sites was re-litigated on Monday.
“No, we’re not going to look at alternative sites,” Coey said. “We looked at alternative sites in 2018.”
She said that once the site was selected, and tax credits were awarded for fund construction at that site, they can’t now switch locations.
“We did not miss a step,” Coey emphasized. “We looked at alternative sites.”
“To me the analysis was not thorough,” McCain said. “It was a couple sites from realtor.com.”
“That’s your opinion Ms. McCain,” Coey said.
McCain asked “council members to take heed to our oath to represent our constituents and businesses” and vote no on these documents.
Mayor David Wortman said, though, that the “entity that currently owns the properties” is a “legal business that has conformed with every ordinance.”
“Regardless of the merits of. .. your view on the project or not, it boils down to, from a city perspective, you either believe in the rule of law and the equal application of it … or you don’t.”
“I don’t believe postponing the vote … is against the law if that’s what you’re saying,” McCain responded. “The city did give the property to Hudson” and she said if it is not developed by 2025 it “reverts to the city. Fact check it. Like, read the agreement. I’m not trying to be difficult.”