State to Baltimore County: 'Come up with a better plan' for contested Dundalk project

Board of Public Works cancels vote on North Point Government Center sale.

The state has intervened to halt a controversial project in Dundalk, telling Baltimore County officials they need to come back with a better plan to redevelop an old government center.

The Board of Public Works yanked from Wednesday's agenda an expected vote on the sale of the North Point Government Center. The three-member panel — composed of the governor, comptroller and treasurer — said vocal community opposition must be taken into consideration.

"There are a number of concerns raised by the community with regards to the deal that has been put in place," said Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who was sitting in for the governor. "We're asking the county to work with the community to see if they can come up with a better plan."

Residents have objected to building a shopping center on the site, which was originally home to North Point Junior High School and later became a government hub. Opponents contend that the county shouldn't sell off government property that's used by the community. They have filed two lawsuits in an attempt to stop it.

Baltimore County planned to sell the government center at the corner of Wise Avenue and Merritt Boulevard to developer Vanguard Commercial Development, which envisioned a complex called Merritt Pavilion to include offices, retail shops, restaurants, a gas station and a pharmacy. The county will build a new recreation center on part of the property that it will retain.

Because the land was once school property, state approval is required for the sale to go through.

Under the deal approved by county leaders, Vanguard would pay the county $7.6 million — a combination of up-front cash, a payment plan and money given up by forgoing lucrative future tax breaks.

"This is something that has absolutely tormented the community," Comptroller Peter Franchot said after Rutherford announced the decision not to vote on the deal. "It doesn't have a single iota of local support. … I have a strong message for the citizens of Dundalk: This is your opportunity to reassert your control because you have a Board of Public Works that is going to listen to you."

Both Franchot and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz are widely viewed as a potential rivals in the Democratic contest for governor in 2018. Franchot has twice this fall offered pointed criticism of Kamenetz's leadership, last month criticizing the county executive for not installing air conditioning more quickly in schools.

Asked for comment on the board's action Wednesday, Kamenetz said that the county has already met with community members more than 60 times over the years about redeveloping North Point and is happy to hold more meetings.

"We know it's going to bring the type of national retailers to Dundalk that people have been asking for," said Don Mohler, Kamenetz's chief spokesman.

Mohler said county officials understand that it's difficult for Dundalk residents to accept change, especially given that many have a "real romantic attachment to this building."

Many Dundalk residents grew up attending recreation and arts programs in the North Point Government Center, and some even attended the junior high school there, Mohler said. But those fond memories can't obscure the fact that the building is old, has a leaky roof and lacks air conditioning, he said.

Mohler said county officials should be able to convince the Board of Public Works of the merits of the government center sale, especially Gov. Larry Hogan, who has touted that Maryland is now "open for business."

Hogan, who has non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, was absent from Wednesday's meeting as he prepared for a final round of chemotherapy set to begin Friday.

"I think that when the Board of Public Works has the opportunity to review the entire project, they will understand the benefits," Mohler said. "We think it's going to be overwhelmingly positive for Dundalk."

Treasurer Nancy Kopp, the third member of the Board of Public Works, noted that it's unusual for the panel to wade into local issues and made clear that Wednesday's action did not put an end to the project.

"My understanding of where it is now: bringing together the locally elected government and the people to try to work through a solution," Kopp said. "I really don't think zoning decisions should be made at the Board of Public Works. But sometimes it's required to act a little to bring people together."

Developer Len Weinberg of Vanguard Commercial Development maintains that his project will be a "marquee community hub and gathering place for Dundalk."

Panera Bread, Chipotle and Five Guys have signed letters of intent for the project, he said.

In addition to the commercial development and the county's replacement recreation center, Vanguard will pay to upgrade the sports fields that remain on the property and to build a lighted artificial turf field at nearby Merritt Point Park.

"We are confident that this project, once completed, will contribute greatly to the community spirit that defines Dundalk," Weinberg said in a statement.

Since the sale was announced in 2013, some users of the building have moved out, including a Baltimore County Council office that relocated to the Eastpoint Mall. The building still is used for choir, theater and recreation programs, a Women, Infants and Children's program office and a police precinct, which is scheduled to move out by the end of December.

Baltimore County Councilman Todd Crandell said he's glad the Board of Public Works is urging more public involvement in the process.

"This whole debacle would not have happened had I been councilman at the time," said Crandell, a Dundalk Republican who was elected in 2014 after the deal was struck. "The community had no input in the beginning of this process."

Members of Dundalk United, a community group that has fought the sale, put out a statement praising the Board of Public Works for delaying its decision.

"We are always willing to engage in discussions for the betterment of the community," the statement read. "To date, we have been advised that Baltimore County has taken the position that the sale is a 'done deal' and there is nothing on the table to discuss."

Dundalk United said a meeting between the county and the community should have been held years ago, before the county "embarked on this unprecedented course of selling parkland for commercial development."

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