Recycling plans still on despite opposition

GREAT FALLS -- A Virginia businessman planning to open a plastics recycling company in an old Great Falls mill has refused to opt out of a controversial purchase agreement.

Don Saulsgiver faxed a letter to the chairman of Chester County's Forfeited Land Commission this week, saying he still wants to buy the Republic Mill No. 2 from the commission.

Because of public opposition to his plans, the commission had asked Saulsgiver if he would like to end the agreement.

"I have invested far more than any late-comer and will protect those interests to the fullest extent provided by law," Saulsgiver wrote in his letter to the commission.

He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Saulsgiver is one of two parties interested in purchasing the mill, the only one of the town's three large textile plants that's completely standing. But most local officials hope the facility will be sold to a development group that plans to build a nearly $20 million hotel and senior living center in the mill.

The county's Forfeited Land Commission consists of four elected officials who oversee land and buildings no one typically wants. The commission acquires property when the taxes aren't paid and the lots aren't bought during tax sales. It has controlled the mill since 2000.

The controversy has emerged because the commission claims it already made a deal with Saulsgiver before the second group inquired about the mill. Saulsgiver agreed to pay the property's back taxes -- nearly $58,000 -- and invest about $2 million in the project.

Jack Kindle, county treasurer and FLC chairman, said commission members signed an agreement in 2006 authorizing their attorney to transfer the deed of the property to Saulsgiver, who also plans to refurbish antique furniture and vintage cars on the site.

But Great Falls residents have strongly supported the second group, which first showed an interest in the mill earlier this year. Most local officials say the senior living center and hotel better suit the town's nature-based tourism goals.

Great Falls Town Council members asked their attorney this week to see if they can change the zoning of two mill sites, including the Republic No. 2, to keep heavy industry out of downtown, Mayor H.C. "Speedy" Starnes said.

Saulsgiver's plans triggered that request, but Starnes said the town doesn't want any industry in that area.

The Chester County Council also doesn't want the commission to sell the mill to Saulsgiver, and some leaders have questions about him.

Those suspicions grew after county officials saw the report of a private investigator who was hired by a Chester businesswoman opposed to the first group getting the mill.

The investigator tracked the criminal and financial records of Saulsgiver and his brother Jay. Both brothers have filed for bankruptcy in the past, according to the investigator's report. Jay Saulsgiver was sentenced to a year in federal prison in 1994, after a conviction for making false claims to the government, the report states.

Don Saulsgiver defended his background in this week's letter to the commission, saying he has paid or is paying off his debts and has been a "self-made, hard working" businessman for 31 years. He insists he has a binding agreement.

"There were no conditions or questions about me when we made the contract," he wrote. "No one questioned the money management 'skills' when I was spending the more than $350,000.00, that I have, to get to this point."

The letter doesn't say how Saulsgiver spent that money.

Most local officials don't believe the FLC has a binding contract with Saulsgiver, mainly because no money has been exchanged for the mill.

County Councilman Alex Oliphant said the best scenario for the county would be the FLC pulling out of the agreement.

"I would rather (the commission) kill the deal, and if the Saulsgivers wanna sue, then let 'em sue us," he said. "Anybody can sue anybody, but I think if the Saulsgivers decided to sue somebody, then I think that they would come out on the wrong end of the lawsuit. I've been wrong before, but everything I'm feeling and reading is telling me that they don't have a case."

But Kindle has said the county likely would lose a lawsuit with Saulsgiver.

The commission's attorney believes the documentation constitutes a binding agreement, Kindle said, even though no money was exchanged when the papers were signed. Payment was delayed because some environmental tests needed to be performed on the property.

Kindle said Tuesday that Saulsgiver once suggested he might pull out of the deal, but his attitude changed after he saw a letter from the County Council supporting the second group.

"I think it angered him a little bit," Kindle said.

Barring the commission's attorney changing his mind, Kindle said the sale should progress, although the commission would meet before any sale is finalized.

As of Tuesday, a meeting had not been scheduled.