Harford County Executive David Craig and Havre de Grace Mayor Wayne Dougherty are engaged in a bitter battle, which may have even gone to court this week, over who is to blame for allowing a multimillion-dollar water treatment plant expansion project, and its accompanying impacts, to slip by with nary a heads-up for unsuspecting downtown business owners.
The issue boiled over this week when Dougherty, recognizing he was about to be lambasted by a furious public, issued an immediate stop work order that seemingly blamed the county for proceeding with the project, which will require closing off the sprawling parking lot behind the water plant for about 18 months, without having a proper plan in place to deal with the disappearing downtown parking spaces.
Craig came back this week with irrefutable proof that he was right and the public had been warned – a short sentence in a tiny article within a meager city-produced newsletter.
But as these masters of grandstanding duke it out over which trumps the other – Craig’s newsletter or Dougherty’s stop work order – what happens to the downtown businesses which could be crippled without a viable plan in place to keep traffic and tourists coming to town?
For a little background, here’s a snapshot of why the water treatment plant has to be expanded.
The St. John Street treatment plant is fed by raw water pumped from the Susquehanna River. In the old days, the heavy sediments that came with the raw water were allowed to settle out in the first phase of treatment and then return to the river. Environmental regulations changed and now that sediment, which carries phosphorus and nitrogen, has to be treated. For years, water thick with sediment has been trucked from the downtown water plant to the Havre de Grace Waste Water Treatment Plant for final treatment.
This is no longer acceptable for both economic and environmental reasons – it’s expensive to truck water from a water treatment plant to a waste water treatment plant several times a week and the state was going to lower the rated capacity of the plant if the changes didn’t get made.
Thus, the downtown treatment plant is being improved with a sludge dewatering facility to address the problem.
The problem is that the project has been in the works for several years and there’s no excuse for it having jumped out and surprised anyone like it has.
Evidently, it never occurred to anyone in either the city or the county that the extensive and lengthy expansion project might affect the increasingly thriving downtown business community. Accommodations for traffic and parking to the surrounding businesses, typically routine parts of engineering design and construction contracts, were never part of the discussion.
Craig, Dougherty and John Correri each served as mayor during the planning of this project, yet none of them seemed to give much thought to the parking problem – or, if they did, none bothered to engage the business community in any meaningful discussion.
Dougherty was chairman of the city’s Public Works Committee in the year before he became mayor and should have been fully aware of the impact that this project would have on the downtown businesses. He was also mayor when Larry Parks, Havre de Grace’s Director of Public Works, signed the drawings on Nov. 5 of last year outlining the water plant area to be closed.
It was only in recent weeks, just before this parking crisis broke, that there was apparently any discussion on the matter.
On Monday night, Dan Lee of MacGregor’s Restaurant had a meeting in his banquet room with about 35 people from the downtown business community. I understand that none of them knew that the entire parking lot was going to be closed for 18 months.
Craig is also said to have been at the MacGregor’s meeting to quell the hostile crowd, but I hear he didn’t have much to offer. And no one from the city bothered to show.
Later that night, Dougherty stole the business owners’ thunder during the Havre de Grace City Council meeting by announcing a stop work on the water plant project before they could publicly lodge their complaints and comments.
Following the city council session, Craig evidently returned to MacGregor’s where he was adamant that the city business leaders had been informed about the water plant project, and claimed that notice was given via the Havre de Grace Citizen Connection newsletter.
Someone who was at the restaurant that night told me the county exec was visibly livid and spent a long time in a huddle with city councilman Steve Gamatoria – whose seat is up for reelection in May.
Maybe Craig was fuming because Dougherty’s proclamation earlier in the night included the specific statement that Havre de Grace would not reissue the work permit until the county had resolved the parking issues to their satisfaction. Let’s face it, Havre de Grace city officials weren’t exactly innocent and certainly helped create the problem by neglecting to consider the impact of the project in the first place.
Becoming something of a regular at the restaurant, Craig supposedly reappeared at MacGregor’s on Tuesday night, this time armed with a copy of the October 2007 issue of Citizen’s Connection, which does, indeed, contain an article about the new water treatment project. The note that the parking lot would disappear for 18 months was buried in the middle of the text. The fact that 24 spaces disappear permanently is not mentioned at all.
Here is the rub – distribution of the Citizen’s Connection newsletter is via water meter billing. But because many business owners are not landlords and since several of the landlords do not live inside the community, Citizen’s Connection doesn’t reach a lot of this audience. Beyond that, it can be debated whether a single sentence buried inside an article hardly constitutes due notice.
A downtown source has also told me that Harford County went to court seeking an injunction against Havre de Grace to pull the stop work order, but that this was rejected.
Roxanne Lynch, the county’s director of governmental and community relations, could shed little light on the situation Thursday, other than to seemingly confirm the behind-the-scenes legal maneuvering through her refusal to comment.
“…it is not our policy to discuss ongoing litigations per the advice of our legal counsel,” she said in an email, when asked about the latest in the water plant parking situation.
There is also a bit of bluster going around Havre de Grace about damage penalties on the project due to delay – in other words, that Dougherty’s move to halt the work will end up costing taxpayers more in the long run because of the delay.
Wrong. I’m told this is a complete red herring and that liquidated damages are normally assessed against the contractor for delays caused by mismanagement, not delays caused by the contractor’s clients – in this case the city and the county. No taxpayer funds are involved.
Never the best of friends anyway, Dougherty may have made a real enemy Monday night when he issued his stop work order in Craig’s face.
But while the super-egos of Wayne and David clash over who is ultimately responsible for dropping the ball when it came to educating the business owners, what becomes of Havre de Grace’s downtown – present and future?