CHESTERTOWN — Sultana Education Foundation made public last week a pitch it initially made in the fall to purchase property in the 300-block of Cannon Street that it has leased from the Town of Chestertown for more than 20 years.
Drew McMullen, the nonprofit’s president, spoke to the newly seated council Jan. 6, following up on an Oct. 23 letter he sent spelling out the proposal.
The council made no decision on the sale.
By a 4-0 vote, the council authorized Town Manager Bill Ingersoll to draft a letter — vetted by the town’s attorney Stewart Barroll — seeking clarity from the state on the sale price, deed restriction and whether Sultana’s occupancy qualifies as a public use.
Mayor Chris Cerino is vice president of the Sultana Education Foundation. He recused himself from any participation in SEF’s proposal Jan. 6, left the dais and took a seat at the press table. Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver was selected by his colleagues to conduct this portion of the meeting.
McMullen’s appearance at last week’s council meeting was the first public airing of SEF’s interest in purchasing the property at the corner of Cannon and Mill streets. The foundation has leased the property for $1 a year since 1997 when SEF was formed to build a replica of the 1768 schooner Sultana.
Following the Sultana’s launch in 2001, SEF has continued to lease the property primarily for the schooner’s maintenance.
As SEF has continued to grow over the past two decades, the need for the maintenance/staging facility at the shipyard has increased, supporting the schooner Sultana and a growing paddling program.
McMullen told the council that SEF now serves as many students through its canoe and kayaking programs as it does on its schooner.
“We have three big canoe and kayak trailers, 40 or 50 canoes and kayaks, and it’s a very helpful place to be able to store and work on all that,” he said.
Looking to the future, the shipyard is well positioned to become an important support facility for SEF’s new Lawrence Wetlands Preserve — a piece of property on the rail trail that goes back into Stepne Manor. The entrance of the wetlands is located only a few hundred feet from the shipyard. McMullen said they want to keep the wetlands as “pristine as possible,” so the shipyard property would be convenient as a staging/storage area.
After 20 years of wear and tear, the original facilities SEF built at the shipyard for the construction of the schooner Sultana are in need of maintenance or in some cases no longer suit the foundation’s current operational needs. For example, McMullen said, the plan is to tear down the big hoop shed in April.
SEF would like to make a significant capital investment in the property to improve its appearance and make it more useful for current operations. McMullen told the council that the foundation is looking at $50,000 to $100,000, as fundraising allows, but that would be impossible without a long-term commitment that ownership would provide.
Improvements would include: removing all structures from the property except the red workshop building; updating the red workshop building, which would be used primarily for storage and program staging; and grading the property to create a pervious, grass-covered parking area for SEF’s vehicles and an occasional “big project,” McMullen said.
There are complications.
The property originally was owned by the State Highway Administration. It was sold by the SHA to Kent County, which in turn sold it to the town in 1992.
The county used Program Open Space dollars to fund its purchase, which placed a deed restriction that the property could only be used for public purposes. If that use ceases, the state has the right to take back the property and compensate the town $80,000, the original sale price to the county in 1989.
“We’re aware that this could go in any number of directions, depending on what someone at the state says,” McMullen told the council.
Another complication: the property for many years was used as a motor pool, so there could be “issues” if it were to be used for anything more than a parking lot, McMullen said.
“Our letter to you in October was basically just a proposal to get the ball moving,” he said.
McMullen said that after talking to Ingersoll and SEF’s attorney, “We basically came to the conclusion that short of an official offer to purchase the property, there probably wasn’t going to be enough to get anyone at the state to look at it.”
He added: “We are not saying we have any right to this property. We just have a need for it. I’m not sure anyone else does. And that’s what we’re approaching you with, to see if you have an interest in selling it.”
Newly elected Councilman Tom Herz, who was sworn in with Councilwoman Meghan Efland as the first order of business at the Jan. 6 meeting, quizzed McMullen on how the change in use from a shipyard to a storage area on a prime piece of real estate in the downtown would affect the overall game plan for economic development in town.
As a taxpayer and SEF president, McMullen acknowledged that was a legitimate question.
“Our boat rises and falls with Chestertown,” he said. “If there is a higher and better use for this, I would encourage you to pursue it.”
He said his experience with having occupied the property for 20-some years is that there has not been “any peep” of doing anything with it.
“If we don’t sell it to you, where will you go?” Tolliver asked McMullen.
“We’d have to look around and see what we could find,” McMullen said. “We would love to stay. I am saying that we are fine with going, and we are, because it’s not our property and we understand that. Emotionally we would love to stay there because we have a ton of history there and it is a fairly critical piece of our operation,” he said.
Herz and audience members raised concerns of noise, parking and increased traffic in what is a residential neighborhood.
To one audience member’s question, Ingersoll said the Betty Ann Connolley pocket park that is adjacent to the shipyard “would remain in perpetuity, or longer even.”
The town manager explained that any sale of the property would come after it was declared surplus by vote of the council, a process that takes about six weeks.
“Is there a sense of urgency? Does this have to be done right now?” Tolliver asked McMullen.
“No,” McMullen said. “The only urgency is that we would just like to make the place look better. So until (a decision is made), our investment in the property will be fairly minimal.”
Tolliver said if it were his call, he would recommend that the council “take a little bit more time to find out what is there, how much it actually is worth and see if anybody else wants it.”
He said the property has been a “good thing” for SEF and the town has benefited from having Sultana.
McMullen reminded the council that SEF helped to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the town-owned marina’s overhaul — “another thing on the side of the ledger” than the $1 annual rental fee.
Ingersoll recommended that no action be taken that night, citing unanswered questions about the “reverter clause” and definition of public use.
For the immediate future, there was agreement that SEF would continue to operate under the current lease.