Thwarted by the Harford County Council in a previous bid to buy contaminated waterfront property for a public park, County Executive David Craig used another lever of government in late December to buy a portion of the property, and hopes to buy the remainder through the county budget he will propose in April.
The $700,000 purchase approved December 19 by the Harford County Board of Estimates consists of .8 acres located at 627 Water Street in Havre de Grace, paid for with county funding for land acquisition, according to Craig. He said the seller was Stonebridge Bank, which held the property in foreclosure.
The approved deal also included $50,000 escrowed by the seller to cover environmental cleanup costs, Craig said following the discussion and vote that were held in a closed session of the Board.
Decisions on land acquisition can be discussed in a closed session so as not to affect negotiations, however the votes should be held in public, Council President Billy Boniface said following the session. Boniface sits on the seven-member BOE, which is chaired by the county executive, per the county code. Boniface said he was one of two “no” votes on the measure, which passed 4 to 2 with one member absent.
If at first you don’t succeed…
Craig’s earlier attempt to buy the waterfront property was in October, through legislation he proposed to purchase 627 Water Street for $770,000, and a 3.7 acre group of parcels known as 649 Water Street for $2.7 million. The legislation called for a multi-year installment purchase plan, which requires council approval.
Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, representing Havre de Grace, co-sponsored the bill, which she said would allow vital connections to existing trails and parkland.
Council members agreed there were merits, however, Boniface and others objected to the terms. They said the purchase prices were based on outdated appraisals, plus the environmental cleanup costs – not factored into the price – could become a burden on county taxpayers.
Former uses of the waterfront properties include storage of fuel and pesticides, according to an Opinion of Probable Cost commissioned by the Craig Administration from Geo-Technology, Inc. (GTA). The company in May 2013 estimated the cleanup cost to range from $336,000 to $1.65 million, depending on how much of the land had to be remediated. The estimates assumed that, aside from petroleum, no other contaminants requiring remediation would be found.
The legislation authorizing the purchase of both properties required the respective sellers to escrow a total of $250,000 for clean up, but Boniface said at the time that the full cost of remediation should be borne by the sellers. He later said the petroleum contamination could be the “tip of the iceberg.”
Craig’s legislative effort to buy the properties failed in a November 5th vote of 5 to 1, with Lisanti the only “yes” vote and Councilman Dion Guthrie abstaining.
Since then, another assessment of 627 Water Street valued the property at $70,000 below the purchase price Craig originally proposed, down to the $700,000 approved December 19th. Craig said the lower assessment valued the property as a passive park rather than a potential residential development.
The approved price does not include cleanup costs, Craig said, however, another environmental review is being done on the property, which he called the “cleanest” of the waterfront parcels.
Asked who would pay if cleanup costs exceeded the $50,000 to be escrowed by seller, Craig said, “It won’t.” When pressed, Craig said that the city of Havre de Grace committed to pay for it.
Havre de Grace Mayor Wayne Dougherty did not respond to a request for comment.
Responding to questions from The Dagger, Erin L. Schafer, chief of the property management division in the county department of procurement, clarified in a December 19th email:
“The County Executive and the Mayor are working towards an MOU in this regard; so far it has been verbal discussions. When I have a written agreement I will be happy to provide a copy.”
Following the Board of Estimates vote, Boniface said that Craig was fully within his rights to buy the property as he did, but council approval would be needed for additional funding of the waterfront project, such as to construct the park at 627 Water Street, or to buy the larger property at 649 Water. “The well is run dry until he gets more money from the council,” Boniface said.
649 Water Street
The primary owners of 649 Water Street are trusts for various family members of Baltimore developer John Paterakis, according to an October memorandum from Schafer that was prepared in response to earlier questions from council members.
Craig said that he plans a second attempt to buy that property by including it in the fiscal year 2015 capital improvement program budget he will propose to the county council in April.
The budget proposal will be his last as county executive. Craig is term-limited and running for governor.
While acknowledging that the council could remove the project before approving the county budget overall, Craig made a pitch for the park: ‘Wouldn’t it be better to have that than 15 – 25 townhouses there?”
“Sitting in the Middle”
Given that the county now owns a portion of the waterfront property literally at the center of the controversy, Council President Boniface offered his personal view of the council’s next dilemma:
“[By] buying the middle piece, now he’s trying to leverage us to buy the other piece. What are we going to do with one parcel sitting in the middle?”