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A chunk of county-owned land was sold to a Blair County developer late last year, but what may be built there is still uncertain.
In late December, Lebanon County sold nearly four acres of commercial land at 860 E. Old Cumberland St. to Altoona-based Aspen Hill Partners (AHP) for $770,000.
The sale of the 3.71-acre parcel, located just west of PennDOT’s Driver License Center (DLC) in Lebanon, has been in the works since 2016.
AHP have not yet announced plans for the property.
Justin Mandel, director of development for the company, said in a phone interview that the firm was “just working through our process” and he was not able to make further comment at the time.
AHP is owned by real estate developer Bruce Thaler, who is also the principal of BT Management Group, a company that has developed stores for Sheetz, according to the Lebanon Daily News’ coverage of the 2016 meeting where Lebanon County Commissioners first voted to sell the parcel, at the time described as a roughly 4.5-acre lot, for $700,000.
The 2016 article quotes Mandel as saying that AHP was attracted to the site by the high traffic volume on Route 422 and the opportunity to redevelop.
“There is likely to be significant offsite attention paid because it is a congested area and because it sits on a corner with some, let’s say, unusual traffic patterns,” he said. “That’s actually part of what attracted us to this property: the opportunity to redevelop it.”
In land development vernacular, “offsite” typically refers to easements and improvements related to right-of-ways that aren’t directly part of the property or project.
The article noted that Mandel told the commissioners at the time that the project will be a commercial development and that the company has developed many commercial sites, including a Sheetz store and Five Guys at Route 72 and Rocherty Road in North Cornwall Township.
“My firm has done a number of different commercial developments around Pennsylvania and adjacent states,” Mandel told the commissioners in 2016. “We work mainly with national accredited tenants. And I think the county and community will be really pleased once the details emerge.”
Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz said company representatives had told county officials during earlier real estate negotiations that the developer planned to construct a convenience store and a pharmacy at that location.
An earlier deal involved a swap for the current Driver License Center in exchange for a larger one
It’s likely complications related to offsite improvements and the company’s larger plans for the site, as well as the unique nature of the property’s traffic patterns, which caused the deal to take nearly seven years before being finalized.
It’s not just the actual acreage which decreased over that period – Lebanon County administrator Jamie Wolgemuth said that the earlier acreage figure was an estimate at the time – but also the firm’s ambitions for the larger swath of land that includes the Driver License Center and abuts Career Drive.
Highway access, current traffic difficulties at the intersection in front of the DLC and the potential fate of the DLC contributed to the delay in the sale of the property.
Earlier there had been discussions among county, state, and company officials that the developer was willing to construct a bigger DLC in exchange for the state turning over the current building to the developer, according to Jon Fitzkee, assistant director/senior transportation planner for the Lebanon County Planning Department.
“I remember there being conversations about putting the Sheetz on the northeast corner of the land,” said Fitzkee. “The developer said if you will work with us, we’ll build a new place (DLC) that’s a better fit for customers and better for you (PennDOT). They would build it, move the driver center and then they could demolish and reconfigure it (the current DLC space) for parking at the Sheetz store.”
State Rep. Russ Diamond, whose legislative district used to include South Lebanon Township until redistricting took place following the 2020 U.S. Census, said he was asked to assist in facilitating conversations between AHP and PennDOT while the township was still in his district. Diamond, a Republican, represents the 102nd Legislative District, which covers a portion of Lebanon County, while South Lebanon Township is now in the 101st Legislative District.
“The conversations were to be about both the driver license center itself and the physical facility and whatever development plans they had and to build a bigger (testing) pad so they could do CDL tests there,” said Diamond. “And to do some kind of lease back to the state for a DMV office there as well as realigning the intersection for safety purposes.”
Diamond said he believes talks between the developer and PennDOT about the DLC stalled about 1.5 to 2 years ago.
“Those talks went on and on and on and things got delayed and I lost track of the whole thing,” said Diamond. “And then COVID kind of interfered with everything, so I kind of lost track of the whole deal. I didn’t know if the deal fell apart or what was going on with it.”
Diamond said the potential sale of the DLC would require a conveyance bill that would be introduced to the state Legislature, and then sent to the State Government Committee for review. An appraisal would have to be conducted before the bill can be passed by vote of the General Assembly.
“Nothing has been introduced in the House or the Senate and it is too early in this session for anything to have happened,” said Diamond. “As I am sure you are aware, these deals are a lengthy process and it can be frustrating for a private landowner to make these kinds of deals because they take a long time to happen – much longer than in the private sector.”
Fitzkee said comments were made in the past that the state has maximized its use of the current DMV building – which used to be a Pennsylvania State Police barracks – and that a new DMV building could potentially accommodate a commercial licensing center for local drivers looking to obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL).
“I think there was even some talk about in our area of Pennsylvania that there’s not a lot of places where you can go and have commercial driver training, where you can get your licensing,” said Fitzkee. “And they were talking about adding that to the amenities here and that would actually be a boon for people with the vo-tech nearby, so if you have someone who wants to get certified as a commercial trucker, they can actually do that as well at the (new) facility.”
Jamie Wolgemuth, chief clerk/administrator for Lebanon County, said the DLC used to administer CDL testing at that site but that changes to federal regulations about four years ago rendered that service obsolete. “The closest place to take a CDL test now, I believe, is in Reading,” said Wolgemuth.
Diego M. Sandino, press officer for PennDOT’s Driver and Vehicle Services, said that the Driver License Center maybe modernized sometime in the future, but did not directly respond when asked whether Lebanon’s DLC was at capacity and if the agency was looking to return CDL testing services to Lebanon County.
Any potential sale or transfer of existing state property would be conducted via the state’s Department of General Services (DGS) and has to be approved by a vote of the state Legislature, according to DGS spokesman Troy Thompson. DGS is responsible for all real estate transactions involving state property, Thompson added.
Thompson said that DGS is not currently in the process of conducting any land transactions with the Lebanon DLC.
Complications around property’s traffic patterns caused firm to scale back plans for site
Diamond said original discussions involved selling another plot of land to AHP, specifically the acreage behind the DLC and in front of the CTC.
“One of the important pieces of that whole conversation was preliminarily a purchase of another parcel of land that was kind of behind it (the DLC) that was part of the 4.25 acres that you referred to that was there and was owned by the county and might also have been part of the wetlands,” said Diamond. “That was one of the complications to get these talks moving forward and there seemed to have been a delay and all of that had to be ironed out before anything else could happen.”
“There were extensions to the sales agreement for a variety of reasons, but mostly because of the challenges to ingress and egress that parcel because it is located along that bend of East Walnut Street near a busy intersection,” said Wolgemuth. “It is a challenging intersection. I have attended meetings with PennDOT and our transportation staff has been involved as well. I believe they were doing their due diligence to ensure it was going to be a viable project location for them… and while they were doing that they were requesting extensions to the agreement and we were agreeing to them.”
Concerning the difficulties of that intersection, Fitzkee said determining how to improve it is a “tough nut to crack” given its complex nature. Fitkzee added that PennDOT would like to see functionality at that intersection greatly improved and that his department will be looking to enhance safety in that vicinity and eastward on Route 422 in the coming years.
Wolgemuth agrees that traffic issues at the intersection of Route 422 with Old East Cumberland and Bowman streets helped delay execution of the sales agreement.
One upshot of the deal taking as long as it did to close was that some of the extensions to the sales agreement over the years added to the purchase price. The final sale price was $770,000, an increase of $70,000 compared to the 2016 figure.
As for the change in acreage, Wolgemuth said that once AHP defined their boundary needs, the lines for a subdivision were drawn and the precise acreage was calculated. Wolgemuth said that the South Lebanon Township supervisors approved the county’s subdivision plan in October.
Although Career Drive is adjacent to the land purchased by AHP, it can’t be used for access in its current state since it is a private lane, according to South Lebanon Township manager Jamie Yingst, who noted that South Lebanon Township has its own planning department and is the municipality that will approve AHP’s land use plan once it has been submitted.
Career Drive is an access road that connects to Technology Drive, which provides access to Lebanon County Career & Tech Center.
“The main struggle when looking at that property is that you have East Old Cumberland Street there, the DMV is there and I believe they (AHP) are working on how to get access to their property,” said Yingst. “And Career Drive is not a public street, which also creates an issue for them. So, the portion (of Career Drive) that kind of winds around, the county or whoever owns it, there is an easement that they (the county) could allow the usage of for the purpose of passing through.”
What entity – if any – owns Career Drive is unclear.
Fitzkee told LebTown that an extensive record search indicates that no Highway Occupancy Permit has ever been filed for Career Drive, and Yingst noted that she believes vo-tech personnel perform maintenance services in the winter months on that paved lane.
“I believe the reason it is hard to find any information on it is because it (that road) is so old,” said Yingst. “I seem to remember there used to be a county home back in that area where the vo-tech is now. The county owned all of that land where the prison is, where Cedar Haven is and where the county fire school is and all of the land that borders the vo-tech, so the road that we now call Career Drive was originally, more or less, like an old county road.”
Yingst added, however, and Fitzkee confirmed that Lebanon County doesn’t technically own any roads.
“(Non-state designated) roads are owned by whatever municipality in which they fall and they are dedicated to that municipality, otherwise they are private roads and dedicated to whomever owns that land where they are located,” added Yingst. “So right now that is just a private lane.”
Yingst agreed that Career Drive being a private lane may have complicated AHP’s access plans to a point where they were no longer feasible.
“They (AHP) do have front footage on either East Old Cumberland Street or Route 422, so if they can’t have access in the back from Career Drive, they will have to figure out a way to have access at the front that’s next to the driver center,” said Yingst, “or else work out something with the driver center for a shared driveway, maybe. That is their biggest obstacle and the first thing they will have to start with.”
Traffic study underway, no HOP issued yet
A PennDOT spokesperson said that the developer had not yet submitted a Highway Occupancy Permit for the site and it was too early to anticipate needed improvements and costs for a potential development at the property.
“I understand the developer is performing a transportation impact study, which is required before an HOP application can be submitted,” said District 8 press officer Dave Thompson.
The county still owns 22 acres in the area, said Wolgemuth, with 12 acres being rented for crop production and the other 10 consisting of the Fire Training School grounds at the east end and some wetland acreage along Walnut Street at the west end called the Quittapahilla Education Wetland Preserve, which is maintained by the Lebanon County Conservation District.
Wolgemuth said that near the end of December the county revised and then renewed its rental agreement with South Lebanon Township farmer Ken Reist to rent the 12 tillable acres for agricultural production at a cost of $100 per acre. Since a small portion of tillable land was sold to the real estate developer, the annual contract with Reist had to be amended before it could be renewed for 2023, added Wolgemuth.
Wolgemuth noted that the county has never actively pursued marketing that parcel of land for sale, but did entertain numerous conversations with interested parties on different occasions prior to agreeing to sell it to AHP.
“Over the years we would occasionally get someone who would come along and express interest in that parcel or a portion of it,” said Wolgemuth. “Some would come and go and some would get serious but never follow up. They (AHP) came to us, expressed interest, we sat down and talked about it and eventually arrived at an agreement that led to a sale, but it wasn’t that we marketed it.”
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