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Could a 149-year-old Mason lodge become a parking lot? Lexington dispute boils over

A controversy surrounding downtown development and the fate of a 149-year-old Masonic Lodge in Lexington has bubbled to the surface of what has become a heated race for mayor.

Mayor Steve MacDougall, who is running for reelection, came under fire when members of the lodge said the town was trying to condemn their property to build a parking lot. A letter from the Masons posted on the watchdog blog Lake & Main said the town and the mayor were trying to make a land grab.

That prompted MacDougall to post a statement on Facebook denying the Masons’ accusation. He also accused Town Council member Ron Williams, who is challenging MacDougall in Tuesday’s mayoral election, of sharing private council discussions with the Masons and advising them to sue the town.

Williams said he does not remember any conversation during which he advised the Masons to sue the town. However, Williams said he did tell them that if the town tried to take the lodge, he would be on their side.

“My job is to represent the citizens of the town, not the town interests,” Williams said. “If I feel any citizen of the town is being taken advantage of by the town, I’m going to defend that citizen.”

Williams wrote in an email that he has hired an attorney “to verify I have done nothing wrong.”

“Steve MacDougall wants me out of the race and he’s shown publicly and in private that he is willing to do anything to keep his seat,” he said.

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Randy Browning, a member and past master of the lodge, which houses one of the longest-standing charitable organizations in Lexington, told The State the town was trying to use the lodge property in one way or another to benefit an incoming Marriott hotel that is slated for a nearby plot of land. Williams said that when the lodge conversation first came up in council, he did not have knowledge of the incoming hotel, though MacDougall had been in talks with developers.

MacDougall would not say if he generally supports using eminent domain — the right of government to take over property in the interest of public use — for economic development. Most council members said they would not support use of eminent domain.

Though it has been in the same spot since 1869 — eight years after the town was founded — the lodge is not protected by a historic or preservation designation, Browning said, because the organization didn’t think it was necessary.

“Who would expect that somebody would want to come in and just take over your facility?” he said.

According to Browning, the town offered about $460,000 for the entire Masonic property, but an independent appraisal done by the Masons determined $1.5 million was a more reasonable number — this would allow wiggle room needed to find a property suited to their needs and would pay for moving expenses.

MacDougall said in an interview this week that the Masons have not responded to the town’s latest offer: to pave the parking lot, plus a piece of a neighboring lot to be used for hotel parking and allowing the members to use select spaces. The Masons set a deadline to respond by Dec. 31, MacDougall said. Yet in the open letter on the watchdog blog, the offer is called “unacceptable.”

MacDougall, in his Facebook post published Oct. 30, said that taking the property through eminent domain has been discussed, but that option always is considered when town officials negotiate a land deal. The post said the council agreed that condemning the property “was NOT an option.”

The mayor went on to say Williams “broke his oath” of office by telling the Masons after a closed-door town council meeting that they should “sue the town.”

MacDougall said he learned about Williams’ conversation with the Masons from one of their members, and that the conversation was the reason for the Masons questioning the town’s motives, which led to tense discussions.

The Masons could not be reached for comment about negotiations.

The lodge land would be used for parking needed to accommodate hotel guests and visitors to the envisioned and touted plans for a “walkable downtown.” Marriott developers met with town officials, including MacDougall, while considering the new project.

Town Administrator Britt Poole said the meeting was custom because businesses and developers want to know a location will meet their needs before making the big purchase.

Poole said in an Oct. 3 interview with The State that he could not comment on the situation with the Masons because dealings were discussed in executive session.

Poole’s job is to advise council on deals related to planning and development, among other things. He said eminent domain is “almost exclusively” used to grow the town’s utility system. And if the town considers taking over land from another party, there is a lot of communication involved, he said.

“We’re not the bull in the China shop over here. We try to deal with everybody fairly,” Poole said.

Ultimately, town council would have to vote on whether to move forward on the plans, but the division the Masons situation has sowed among the town’s leaders has brought inside baseball into public view ahead of the election.

MacDougall said his post was spurred, in part, by the open letter the Masonic Lodge published on Lake & Main — it has more than 10,000 views, according to publisher Charlie Speight — but he was also “tired of being attacked.”

MacDougall said the efforts to “smear” him have made people believe he was pushing for the use of eminent domain to oust the Masons. That is not true, he said.

“It was never on the table. Just to be clear, it was never. It was discussed in executive session. It was talked about, but it was never a directive to staff,” he said.

MacDougall said he has called Charles “Dick” Kyzer, the author of the open letter and Masonic Lodge secretary, twice but Kyzer never returned the calls. Kyzer could not be reached by The State for comment.

Cueto can be reached at 803-771-8621, @isabellacueto
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