Friday, April 20 - Churches Not Rushing To Spend Big Bucks From Sale
BERLIN - One year after an historic, pristine piece of waterfront property along Assawoman Bay and the St. Martin's River in northern Worcester County was auctioned for $8.7 million, the local churches that sold the 400-acre-plus tract are reaping the benefits of the sale.
Potential bidders from all over the world showed up last April to bid on the historic Townsend farm, a 412-acre tract along the waterfront in northern Worcester County. The auction created a buzz in the weeks leading up to the auction, which was held in a tent on the site with views of the Ocean City skyline.
The property's former owner, the late John G. Townsend, a former governor of Delaware at the turn of the last century and a two-term U.S. Senator, deeded the property to three area churches in the 1960s with the understanding the farmers working on the land would be allowed to continue to do so until they died.
The last of the farmers working the historic tract died in January 2006, converting full ownership of the land to St. Paul's by the Sea in Ocean City, the Zion Church in Bishopville and the Salem Church in Selbyville, Del. The three churches then collectively decided to sell off the property for their mutual benefit, setting up the historic auction.
Hundreds of would-be buyers and curiosity seekers gathered at the site on auction day in anticipation of the sale as private helicopters circled overhead, at least one of which delivered a prospective buyer. The entire property was divided into three parcels, the largest being a 246-acre tract along the water, as well as another 91-acre tract and a smaller six-acre piece that connected the two larger pieces.
The Marshall Auction-Marketing Company, which conducted the sale on behalf of the three churches, started the bidding for the largest parcel at $10 million, but there were no takers at that price and the bidding then started at $3 million. The bidding, driven by buyers from all over the country, quickly escalated to $4.8 million, and when the other two parcels were sold, the total price for the entire 400-acre-plus tract had risen to $8.7 million. The intent from the beginning was to sell the three parcels together as part of a whole.
When the dust finally settled after the whirlwind auction, Lillian Rios, originally of New York, who has vast land holdings in northern Virginia, emerged as the successful bidder for the historic property.
As the auction drew to its dramatic end, auctioneer Doug Marshall said, 'Churches, I have the feeling you won't be doing many pancake breakfasts any more,' and while his sentiments may prove to be true, the three churches that split the nearly $9 million windfall have not strayed far from their pre-sale missions. While the proceeds from the sale have provided the churches with some fiscal breathing room, the money has not triggered a big spending spree in any case.
'It's certainly had a big impact,' said Father David Dingwall of St. Paul's by the Sea in Ocean City. 'We've got it invested because we wanted to deliberately take some time and not rush in to anything.'
A representative from the Salem Church in Selbyville, who preferred to remain anonymous, echoed Dingwall's sentiments.
'We decided to resist being impulsive,' she said. 'Most of it has been invested and the interest has been distributed to some of our mission-giving. Some of it is going to something different each month.'
Dingwall said St. Paul's is in the process of creating a strategic plan and some of the money will likely be used to help implement that plan.
'We're in the midst of developing a strategic plan and whatever comes out of that, whatever the plan calls for, we will likely apply some of this money toward its completions. One of the things we're working on is setting up a St. Paul's by the Sea Foundation and an endowment fund,' Dingwall said.
While much of its share of the $8.7 million windfall has not been earmarked for any specific purpose yet, St. Paul's has been able to use some of the proceeds of the land sale for capital improvements.
'We needed to replace the roof on the church and that work is getting ready to get underway,' he said. 'The church has some physical needs and some of the money can be used to meet them.'
However, Dingwall said the proceeds from the sale will not be used for the day-to-day operating costs for the church, but rather will likely be devoted to more spiritual goals. 'Our goal is not to use the proceeds to keep the church operating,' he said. 'We're hoping to devote it to things we wouldn't typically be able to do.'
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen what Rios has planned for the historic site. No plans have been submitted for any of the three parcels, according to county staffers, and any potential development would have many hurdles to overcome. Much of the tract is made up of unbuildable areas including marsh and wetlands. The largest parcel is currently zoned A-1 for agriculture although there is some R-1 residential zoning on the property. None of the historic tract was targeted as a potential growth area in the county's recently adopted comprehensive plan and there is no public water or sewer in the immediate area.