Bel Air town officials want to move ahead on new police headquarters, could sell land to help pay for it

Bel Air town officials are continuing to study the prospect of building a new police headquarters, as well as how the project would be financed.

No cost estimates have emerged, but the possibility of selling off surplus property to help pay for a new police facility was discussed in detail during the retreat for the Board of Town Commissioners and town staff held March 3 at the Bel Air Armory.

Town Planning Director Kevin Small said he wants to hire an engineering and architectural consultant to help determine what kind of police facility is needed and where it could be built – and at what cost.

Such a study, Small said, will help town officials “narrow down what is the best location,” while also helping them to determine total space needs, not just for the police department but for other town departments, as well.

Town officials previously stated a preference for building a new police station at the corner of Lee Street and Hickory Avenue, on town-owned property adjacent to Town Hall, and then renovating Town Hall to use the space currently occupied by the police on the building’s lower level for other town government functions. That would be the simplest solution.

The feasibility study, which Small said would take four to five months to complete once a consultant is hired, would determine if that site could accommodate a police building, while also looking at other potential locations and the possibility of a wholesale rebuild of Town Hall.

Small said he has interviewed two firms. He presented a proposed scope of work during the retreat, saying once a consultant is hired, it would be “a year-long process before we get actual architectural drawings.”

In addition to the options of building a new police headquarters adjacent to Town Hall or extensively renovating and expanding the nearly 54-year-old building, a third alternative would be to build a new police building at another location in town.

The goal of the study, Small said, would be to come up with a plan that has “a reasonable cost and a reasonable number of unknowns.”

Whatever choice is made, it’s going to be an expensive one, everyone who attended the retreat agreed.

“We’re going to have to come up with a couple of million dollars somewhere,” Town Administrator Jesse Bane said, adding: “It has to be done; we can’t continue” with the status quo.

If a consultant determined the property at Lee and Hickory is too small or has topographical issues, Bane said, then they would have to look elsewhere.

“We’re going to be moving forward to build an adequate facility at a proper location,” he said.

The town officials also discussed an inventory of town-owned properties that was prepared for the retreat, with Bane saying they would be looking at “what we could surplus” during future work sessions.

Selling potentially developable property the town owns would be one possibility to help with the financing of the new police headquarters.

Prominently mentioned at the retreat is the surface parking lot the town owns across from the parking garage on Hickory Avenue that also has frontage on Pennsylvania Avenue. Much of the lot is used by the Bel Air Library and by Harford County Public Schools, the latter for people working in the A.A. Roberty Building at Hickory and East Courtland Street.

The Hickory lot encompasses 66,000 square feet, more than one and a half acres; the site could be expanded by purchasing an adjacent property on Courtland Place that might make the entire site more attractive to market, Small said.

Some of what might or might not happen with town-owned properties ­– primarily those without buildings on them – could depend on the county government, which also has a number of vacant properties in the downtown area, such as the so-called “tire lot” at Main Street and Churchville Road and the former health department site along Hays Street, as well as the former Peppi’s deli property at Hays and Thomas streets.

The county is trying to sell the tire lot property to a developer, although it hasn’t struck any deal yet. There’s another block of vacant downtown property at Bond Street and Churchville Road that is privately owned and has been slow to be developed.

Bane said town officials should be “cautious and thorough” when looking at what might be surplused to help pay for a new police building, while Small said they should also look “at what we might acquire” to enhance future economic development possibilities and boost the town’s tax base.

Bane cautioned, as did several others, that any future property acquisitions should be done with a specific purpose and followed through with, unlike what happened with the former BBT building acquisition on Main Street earlier in the decade that became an expensive surface parking lot. That property still could be a candidate for being sold off, the town officials said, but it’s future is likely tied to the future of the adjacent Sheriff’s Office headquarters building at 45 S. Main St., which is owned by the county.

Town Commissioner Patrick Richards said an analysis of the town-owned properties and what might be done with them in the future is “a logical next step.”

“We should, at least on properties we want to maximize; it could offset the cost of the police station,” Richards said, while also cautioning they don’t want to get “too far down the road” with the project, “and then we have to pay for it.”

He added, however, that the town definitely needs a new police facility and one that will allow for future expansion when necessary.

“I believe it can be done without raising taxes,” Bane said confidently.

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