Harford finalizing complicated Abingdon land deal

Harford County government is nearing the end of what its chief lawyer calls the "arduous process" of acquiring 110 acres in the heart of the Route 24 corridor in Abingdon that will be used for a park and the home of a future cultural arts center.

The gift of the property to the county from the trustee for the estate of the late Emily Bayliss Graham has several strings attached, but it also means the citizens will have an asset that is worth between $14 million and $17 million, County Attorney Robert McCord said Tuesday.

"I think it's the hardest we've ever worked to get a gift given to the county," McCord said, noting the county has been in negotiations with the Graham trustee and other involved parties for more than a year and half.

The payoff, he added, is the citizens can be assured the property won't "have more of the same of whatever is around it…that won't be there," a reference to the surrounding area's heavy residential and commercial development.

The last major undeveloped property between I-95 and the Town of Bel Air, the Graham property is on both sides of Route 24 just south of Wheel Road and the Festival at Bel Air Shopping Center.

Though the county does not have full title to the property yet, it has had the legal authority to become its owner for 16 months and is moving into the actual conveyance phase, McCord said.

"One parcel's conveyance to the county is imminent; we just have to decide the sequence for the others," he said.

McCord said the county will use 69 acres between Route 924 and Route 24 for a passive, nature-oriented park, which was one of Mrs. Graham's desires for her property. Those who knew Mrs. Graham say she was interested in gardening and nature. This part of the property also contains a historic house.

The county plans to lease the 41 acres west of Route 24 to an influential private group that has been raising money to build a community center for performing and fine arts, McCord said.

Harford County Executive David announced the latter arrangement for the Center for the Arts at the group's annual Dancing for the Arts Gala Sept. 24, according to a news release the nonprofit organization issued in early October. Center for the Arts is a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit formed in 2005 with the goal of building a community cultural center.

According to the Center for the Arts announcement, the site must be developed for "construction of a cultural center by 2018 or the land will revert back to the foundation."

McCord said this characterization is basically true.

"They [Center for the Arts] would have seven years to show substantial progress on a building and, at the discretion of the trustee, another three years to fulfill the requirement," he explained.

McCord also said the same progress requirement applies to the 69 acres that would be used for what county Parks and Recreation Director Arden McClune has called Harford's future "Central Park."

Craig has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Center for the Arts organization and its goal of developing a county cultural arts center. Leaders of the organization have said in the past they hoped to secure funding for the cultural center project from a variety of sources, including private donations, corporate and foundation donations and from the government.

McCord said Craig signed a memorandum of agreement with the Center for the Arts on Oct. 27 which delineates the organization's and the county's respective responsibilities for the Graham property.

The lawyer said this agreement - which was not submitted to either the Harford County Council or to the county Board of Estimates - does not obligate the county to spend a specific amount of money to build the cultural arts center. It does, however, state the county "will contribute" once the two have agreed on the full cost of the project.

"We have agreed to a portion of the cost [of the project] once it has been agreed upon," he said.

In any case, McCord said the county intends to retain title to the land where the cultural center is developed and, he said he seriously doubts the property would be intensely developed even if the reversion clause kicked in.

"I think it would be unfair to say there would be condos" if the cultural arts center isn't built on the site, he added.

The Graham property is the largest tract of undeveloped land along Route 24 in the heart of what the county government has long considered its designated development district, commonly referred to as the "development envelope." Though developers have coveted the tract for decades, Mrs. Graham was never interested in selling, despite the property's high dollar value.

Mrs. Graham, whose family owned the Abingdon property for about 200 years, died a widow and had no children. She also left behind three wills, according to McCord, that outlined a variety of desires she had for the property, most of them involving public use and preservation.

McCord said the estate became the subject of court battles in New Jersey where Mrs. Graham died. The trustee for the estate, Thomas McGrath, was also Mrs. Graham's guardian during the final years of her life, McCord said.

In 2010, the county became a party to the mediation that had been ordered to settle the competing claims against the estate. On July 19, 2010, an agreement was reached with the trustee that would allow the county to receive the property as a gift.

McCord said McGrath agreed a passive park and a cultural arts center are uses consistent with the late owner's desires for her land.

Before that deal could be sealed, however, one potential claim had to be removed which McCord said could have tied the estate up in protracted litigation. One of the wills had mentioned the Baltimore Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, which has been looking for a permanent home for its Harford Friends School that operates in the county-owned Highland Community Center.

In 2010, at the behest of Craig, the county council agreed to declare surplus 65 acres along Route 1 near Dublin, which will in turn be transferred to the Friends for a future school site. The county had acquired the site, known as the Michael-Martin property, for a park, at a cost of $1.8 million, according to county officials.

McCord said the Friends will get the property free and dropped any claim against the Graham estate. The final conveyance also is pending.

Despite everything that was involved to receive the Graham property, McCord said he is happy with the outcome. He was particularly complimentary of McGrath, the Graham Estate's trustee.

"He [McGrath] was a tireless advocate for Mrs. Graham and the estate," McCord said. "She wanted those who benefited from her land to prove what they would do with it, and he represented her wishes well."

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