Should Havre de Grace annex again? [Editorial]

Going back three decades or so, Havre de Grace was a rather depressed community, having more in common with flood-ravaged river towns along the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania than the high-end, leisure-oriented communities on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.

This was the era when, even as the Susquehanna basin struggled to emerge from the wreckage of the 1972 Agnes floods, Annapolis had become established as a high-visibility destination for sailing enthusiasts, when Harbor Place in Baltimore was still viewed as a welcome replacement for the Inner Harbor's largely defunct commercial docks, when St. Michaels had the patina of a new discovery for day tourists and when commuters were beginning to realize it was possible to live on the Eastern Shore and commute across the bay bridge to work.

Havre de Grace, meanwhile, was home to a retail business district that hadn't changed much since shopping malls came into being, except that it lost shoppers to those malls. And besides Havre de Grace Heights and Meadowvale, the city was mostly east of Route 40.

The Chesapeake Industrial Park and the J.M. Huber plant, then as now, helped make the city an employment center, even as they gave it a decidedly industrial edge.

It was against this backdrop that two related efforts were undertaken, the drive to turn the city into a tourist destination, and the drive to expand the city's borders and encourage development, especially residential development.

Building on the foundation of having a thriving marina-oriented tourism trade, thanks to its waterfront location, the city was able to increasingly attract boaters to sit-down restaurants and a range of museums, all of which came into their own in the mid- to late-1980s. The effort to capitalize on the waterfront and transform Havre de Grace from ravaged river town to a bay front destination has been a substantial success.

It was during the mid- to late-1980s when land annexation also came into its own. The first major territory added was a vast tract of undeveloped land known today as the northern half of Bayview Estates. Its annexation went largely unnoticed, but when houses started popping up along Chapel Road at about the same time as a second major annexation was being considered, there was a fairly vigorous public debate. In the May city election in 1987, the voters of Havre de Grace, by a solid margin, approved the annexation of what has since become Grace Harbour.

Many of the questions raised during that campaign, however, would not be answered right away.

As the city ponders another annexation of a substantial parcel to the west of Grace Harbour along Route 155, a look back at the 1980s debate sheds a fair amount of light on whether more annexation will be good public policy for the city.

Initially, annexation was regarded as a way for Havre de Grace to increase its tax base. It turned out, however, that while the city's revenue would increase as it took in property taxes from the new territories, the long-term net gain would be almost entirely consumed by the need for the city to provide services to those new territories. In the 25 years since those early annexations, the city still struggles with its spending policies and property tax rate, though its budget is substantially larger than it was prior to the annexations. On this front, annexation has been a wash for the city.

In the mid-1980s, the capacity of the city to produce drinking water far outstripped its capacity for treating sewage. It would have no trouble doubling or tripling its water system customer base, but the sewage treatment plant was operating near its capacity at the time. The Bayview development was projected to consume most of the remaining capacity, and there was an expectation that Grace Harbour would consume any capacity left. On the bright side, it was projected that with an increased customer base, the city's sewage treatment plant could be expanded without sewer rates being increased dramatically.

What has come to pass is that while the city has no trouble producing water, its aging pipe network would need to be substantially upgraded. Some state and federal grant money became available to upgrade the sewage treatment plant. Even so, the finances of both the water and sewer operations – whose budgets must be balanced based solely on water and sewer rates – were in disarray for years. Even with substantial rate increases in recent years, it remains to be seen if the water and sewer fund issues have been wholly resolved.

When it became clear even during the debate over whether to annex what would become Grace Harbour that increasing the tax base was an unrealistic expectation, the argument was raised that Havre de Grace needed to have housing stock for people who had grown up in the community and wanted to stay and establish families.

Though it had the air of an after-thought argument at the time, it turned out to have been the most realistic reason for the pro-development policies of the mid-1980s. A sizable portion of the homes in the new developments are occupied by people who lived in the city prior to development. In addition, there are a fair number of people who were attracted to the city as a result of having been taken in by the pleasant experiences they had as tourists.

On the whole, the annex and develop policy of the past quarter of a century in Havre de Grace has been a mixed bag. Overall, the city is better off than it was, but some of the improvements may have happened anyway thanks to its bayside location and the tourism promotion efforts.

Does it make sense for the city to continue this policy by annexing the tracts in the Mt. Felix area? It's an open question, and one that needs a thorough public vetting. During this vetting process, the experience of past annexations should be closely examined.

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