Originally created 05/27/98

Land feud goes first round



AIKEN -- The Aiken City Council got a small, but bitter, taste Monday of what a public hearing on some vacant property on Highland Park Avenue may be like in June.

The real estate agent who will lose a hefty commission if the city does not take her client's $100,000 option said the council's apparent plan to sell the land for less is irresponsible.

Virginia Dunkelbarger said the council is buckling under political pressure from residents of the upscale neighborhood, who have offered to buy the city's lot themselves rather than see an independent living facility for the elderly built on it.

The residents have offered $60,000 for the land, which the city acquired several years ago to open a path to Hitchcock Woods from downtown. At the time, the city was negotiating to acquire the old U.S. post office building and wanted that land bridge as well. But that deal fell through.

Ms. Dunkelbarger said her client, Diversified Senior Services Inc. of Winston-Salem, N.C., plans to build a dozen residential centers for the elderly throughout the South and wants them within walking distance from downtowns.

"My client's offer has been represented as having conditions attached, and that is not true," she said.

Then she ticked off a short list of items the city could buy with the $40,000 difference between the residents' offer and the Department of Social Service's. Among them were bullet-proof vests for police, landscaping and street work.

The Social Service's facility, which would house about 30 people "with money to spend," also would yield higher tax revenues than the two Charleston-style townhouses the resident-owners would build.

The agreement for that use of the land has been drawn up on recommendation of Aiken Corp., the city's economic development arm, and needs only the city council's endorsement.

The council approved that deal on first reading Monday, clearing the way for a public hearing and second reading.

Ms. Dunkelbarger asked to be heard Monday night, and Mayor Fred B. Cavanaugh let her speak, followed by attorney Bill Tucker, who represents the residents.

Mr. Tucker said the issue is "not about money," but is "an issue of property values, neighborhood values and the character of a downtown neighborhood. This council would not be tempted by the dangling of mere change."

The public hearing, which could be a stronger version of the same arguments, probably will be on the council agenda for June 8, followed by a final vote.

In other business on Memorial Day, the council gave first-reading approval to an annexation request from Town Creek Baptist Church, which asked to be annexed to get fire protection.

The council also gave KMC Telecom another year to finish fiber-optic installations in Aiken.