Harford County council members were very divided Tuesday about the county's proposal to buy some adjacent waterfront properties in Havre de Grace for $3.47 million.
During a public hearing prior to its legislative session in Bel Air, the council grilled procurement agent Erin Schafer for about two hours on the project, with several council members wondering if the purchase would be worth it.
The council did not vote on the proposal Tuesday, since the meeting was just a public hearing.
Councilman Chad Shrodes and Council President Billy Boniface were especially doubtful in light of the fact that the property would need to be cleaned of contamination.
Schafer said the worst-case scenario would have the county paying as much as $1 million to clean the property of oil, metals and other contaminants from former industrial use, on top of the purchase price.
Boniface pointed out that two appraisals were conducted five years apart, and both had the property valued at the same price, which Boniface said seemed strange given the real estate market.
"I just have a problem with that, Erin," Boniface said, referring to the "volatility" of the proposal and the financial risks to the county.
He said he did not see how the county could commit itself to a purchase of nearly $3.5 million with no other partners. He also asked if the administration could get a more recent assessment than one from 2010.
The properties in question are seven parcels known as 649 and 627 Water Street, owned by MTBR Yacht Club LLC, under Manekin LLC in Columbia.
Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, who represents Havre de Grace and is the paid executive director of the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway, talked about the regional and even national significance of buying the property, which would be used to create a waterfront heritage park and a trailhead for the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
Havre de Grace Mayor Wayne Dougherty, tourism director Brigitte Peters and council members John Correri and David Glenn were on hand in the council chambers.
Dougherty noted that the view from the waterfront "must be world-class."
County parks and recreation director Arden McClune said the heritage greenway has been in the county's plans for years.
Boniface did note the administration was not required to come before the council with the purchase, as it simply could have gone to the board of estimates.
In response to a question from Shrodes, McClune said the Swan Harbor Farm and Oakington areas of Havre de Grace cost the county roughly $4 million.
Shrodes replied: "It just doesn't seem like we are getting a lot of bang for the buck when you enter the development cost into it… It's just a big pause when you talk about the acquisition, the clean-up."
Lisanti, meanwhile, said the project would generate tax revenue and said many people, not just Havre de Grace residents, use the city's waterfront..
She also said a lot of revenue is generated from ship user fees on the water.
County economic development director Jim Richardson said the project would help the county as a whole.
"We need to provide a place that attracts this new workforce to our region so we can be competitive with larger municipalities as well as other areas of the United States," Richardson said. "Sustainable communities are places of enduring values and I believe Havre de Grace met that challenge of being a sustainable community."
David Jaffe, president of the Ontario-Otsego Positive Action Committee, said his fellow residents support the proposal.
"Our entire community association is strongly supportive of this project," he said, noting the residents were involved when Clark Turner initially wanted to build homes on the site after buying it from Gilbert Oil.
He said people saw it as a win-win, including residents such as former Havre de Grace councilwoman Barbara Wagner, who was at the meeting but had not signed up to speak in advance.
The former oil terminal is being used by contractors for the Maryland Transportation Authority as a staging port for the rehabilitation of the piers of the Route 40 Thomas Hatem Memorial Bridge, a $48 million project that began in the spring of 2012 and is expected to be completed by fall 2014.