HdG voters asked to OK city's purchase of more waterfront land

In less than a month, Havre de Grace voters will decide whether to extend the city's public waterfront holdings north of the Concord Point Lighthouse through the $1.29 million purchase of a home and surrounding property belonging to a former city councilman's family.

That answer will come May 7 when residents fill out Question B on their election ballots and determine if the city will be allowed to buy the Gamatoria family's property at 701 Concord St.

Steve Gamatoria, the former councilman, who said recently he may one day consider running again for political office in Havre de Grace, came forward with the offer of selling the four lots that include his house adjacent to the lighthouse.

The city appraised the property for $1.3 million. A deposit of $40,000 was paid to the seller, with the remainder to be paid over 25 years, at 4 percent interest. Settlement would occur by Jan. 1, 2014.

Havre de Grace's city charter requires that the city's voters must first approve any property acquisitions by the city government. The same rule holds if the city decides to sell or otherwise dispose of any of its real estate.

The ballot question for the Gamatoria property purchase states that the mayor and city council intend to transform the property into a waterfront park. Just exactly what the property will look like, if the city buys it, is still in the very conceptual stage.

City Council members announced their agreement with the acquisition in February and, at a more recent council meeting, revealed a concept plan showing public open space on the property. The plan showed the house being removed.

During that latter council meeting, Gamatoria said he wanted to "clear the air" by responding to what he said was confusion about the price and size of the property, as well as his involvement with it.

"My single most important mission is that this not become a political issue," Gamatoria said at that time, explaining it is simply an offer from his family of "what I believe is the single most beautiful pice of land in Havre de Grace."

"As this process unfolded, I specifically have remained at arm's length [with] my participation at council meetings," he said, adding he has postponed plans for a second year to run for council or mayor "until this is over."

'Cut and dried'

Gamatoria said in an interview Sunday that he believes his mission has basically been accomplished.

"I got a few e-mails, people thanking me for kind of clearing the air and getting everything out there," he said about his earlier comments.

A sample ballot with the picture of the conceptual drawing has also been posted on the fence at his property, he said. It was also posted in a legal advertisement in last week's issue of The Record.

Gamatoria said he was satisfied with the ballot wording – "it is what it is" – and expects the process to move forward as expected. He said the main source of confusion was the difference between the appraisal and the assessment, but he thought that has largely been cleared up with the ballot question.

"It's pretty cut and dried at this point," he said of the proposal. "The citizens either want to do it or they don't. At this point, I'd be surprised if anything came up. I think all the questions have been answered."

Gamatoria talked at the earlier council meeting, and again on Sunday, about the work he has done to keep the waterfront along his property in good shape. He installed bulkhead, or a retaining wall, several years ago, as well as a pier about 10 years ago.

"The most important thing is, any time you have waterfront property is making sure it's maintained properly," he said.

"We see it as an opportunity for the city to regain some of the waterfront and increase the park space and open space," he added.

According to the Maryland Department of Assessment and Taxation records, the latest assessment for the property, which was reassessed in the 2012 calendar year, is set at $1,029,133 for July 1,2013, the beginning of the next county tax year.

The property includes the four-bedroom home, which has a two-car garage, a sun room with decks, a bathroom with a handicapped shower, Jacuzzi, master bath and pocket doors throughout.

Process started in 2012

Gamatoria said he talked with Mayor Wayne Dougherty in January 2012 about making the property available to the city.

Gamatoria noted in February that the waterfront is truly the main draw of Havre de Grace.

His property, meanwhile, has a long history as the site of the Havre de Grace Yacht Club in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as other functions, he said.

"We looked at it, really, as a stewardship," he said of the property. "I think in the macro sense - 100 years, 200 years, 300 years from now - we really are just a very short steward of anything that we own."

The Gamatorias bought the Concord Street land in 1995, and Steve Gamatoria said he plans to move elsewhere in the area. He has building lots in the Havre de Grace Heights, off of Currier Street, and is also looking at other homes.

"Whatever we do, it's going to be completely, 100 percent handicap accessible," he said, explaining he wants the new home to be accessible to his family for the long term. "This house is not conducive for accessibility," he added.

If the voters approve the purchase, Gamatoria would have to move by Jan. 1, 2014. He does not know what he would do if the voters reject the purchase, but he said he intends to eventually move in any case.

"I don't really want to sell the property to a private owner," he added.

He said he pays annual property taxes to the city of slightly more than $5,000 and to the county of slightly more than $10,000. Gamatoria urged anyone with questions to contact him at stevegamatoria@comcast.net.

Council enthusiastic

When the acquisition was first put before the City Council, the council members were unanimous about throwing their support behind the whole idea.

"We've seen our waterfront properties disappear for many years and this is an opportunity to take one of the most historic properties…, the lighthouse down there, and protect it forever," Council President Randy Craig said.

"It's not very often an opportunity like this becomes available and I'm hopeful and confident it will gain the support that's necessary," Craig said.

Mayor Wayne Dougherty said the planned acquisition and the price the city is paying for it is a sign of things changing.

"There was a time when Havre de Grace waterfront property was worthless. No one wanted to live by the water," he said, adding the city continues to change and the waterfront has become its biggest tourist draw.

"Land preservation has always been extremely important to myself as I've served 16 years in the city," the mayor said.

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