Harford buys waterfront property over county council's objections

The Harford County Council may have struck down his proposal to buy about five acres of waterfront property in Havre de Grace, but that didn't stop County Executive David Craig from doing part of the deal, anyway.

The county executive requested Board of Estimates approval to buy the 0.8-acre parcel at 627 Water St. in a closed session at the board's Dec. 19 meeting. Board members then reconvened in public session and approved the transaction.

The $700,000 purchase from Stonebridge Bank had not been on that meeting's agenda, nor was it announced when the public session began.

The deal includes placing $50,000 in escrow toward potential environmental clean-up of the property, which is one of a group of parcels between Jean Roberts Park and the Havre de Grace Marina that the county executive had been seeking to buy for a future park.

The purchase paves the way for the county to buy the remaining four parcels as a capital project in the 2015 budget, Craig said. The council will review the Fiscal Year 2015 capital budget this spring.

"This [parcel] was the one in the middle," Craig said about the property, explaining it would help lock in the purchase of the other parcels, which encompass about four acres and are owned by MTBR Yacht Club, LLC.

"Buying the hole in the doughnut is actually the best way to go forward," he added.

During the fall, a artist's conception was developed for the site under the name "Waterfront Heritage Park."

County Council President Billy Boniface said he voted against the Stonebridge property purchase, as did Warren Hamilton, who is Craig's citizen representative on the board. Other members present voted for the purchase, while Jan VanDeusen, the council's citizen representative, was absent.

"I am a little disappointed with the way he did it. The council said we did not want it and he went ahead and bought it, and he bought the middle piece," Boniface said of Craig's decision.

In their votes against buying both the Stonebridge and MTBR properties on Nov. 5, council members were concerned about the possible cost of cleaning up the property. They also requested a new appraisal on all the parcels, which Craig said he later provided. Only Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, who represents Havre de Grace, wanted to go forward with the purchases, which were set to be $770,000 and $2.7 million for the Stonebridge and MTBR properties, respectively.

Land purchases do not typically have to be reviewed by the council, but the $3.4 million package deal came before council members because it would have been a multi-year purchase. The single purchase of the Stonebridge property will come from money in the current budget, Craig said, and didn't need council approval.

Craig said Monday he believes Parcel 6, one of the MTBR parcels, is the only one likely to be seriously polluted and, with the property being developed as parkland, the cost of clean-up could be much lower than the $50,000 estimate.

Craig defended the purchase, calling it a key investment for the county and an important part of the open-space requirement the county must meet.

"It's an excellent piece of property to buy," he said.

He dismissed some council members' concern about paying for the acquisitions.

"That was one of the concerns, is, did the funding really exist?" Craig said.

"They were given not really good advice by their staff. The funding is there," he said, noting the council "never recognized" that fact.

The council's auditor cautioned about the potential clean-up of portions of the site. Some parcels were part of the old Gilbert Oil storage and distribution terminal and are being used as staging by state contractors repairing the piers of the nearby Hatem Bridge.

Boniface said he agrees the land would be a valuable purchase but, he noted, "the devil's in the details."

"I don't think anyone would argue that it is a nice piece of property," he said. "I am going to be open-minded about it, but I want to see how much the City of Havre de Grace is going to contribute and how much the state will contribute and how much the clean-up will cost."

Boniface said the appraisal on the 0.8-acre site did drop from $770,000 to $700,000, but he still had "the same concerns we had before – there is potential of some pretty significant environmental clean-up."

He disagreed with Craig's downplaying of the environmental impact.

"The potential is a lot more than what is being put in escrow," Boniface said. "I think we shouldn't be buying properties with us doing the clean-up. That should be the responsibility of the seller. In the real world, that is how it works."

Councilman Jim McMahan also criticized the purchase.

"In its current status of contamination, I wouldn't buy it," McMahan said Monday, explaining he didn't think it would be "fiscally responsible" to buy the property with such an open-ended estimate of the clean-up.

"It certainly would complete the shoreline but at what cost to the taxpayers?" he added.

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