Havre de Grace voters, by a nearly 3-1 margin in Tuesday's special election, approved the city spending $1.1 million to purchase four parcels along Water Street.
There were 761 votes cast, including 734 in person at City Hall and 27 absentee ballots, according to unofficial election results. The measure passed, 561-199, with one ballot left blank, giving the "yes" camp a 73.7 percent margin.
City officials will now proceed with cleaning up the property as they prepare to turn the former site of an oil terminal into a public waterfront park.
"I think the citizens chose wisely, and we're looking forward to getting down there and cleaning up the park," Mayor Bill Martin said after Tuesday's vote.
The special election happened two days after Christmas, leading to some public concerns that city officials were trying to get the measure passed with little notice during the holidays.
Martin has said previously that Harford County, which owns the properties, sought an answer by the end of the calendar year as to whether the city will purchase the lots.
"I was very impressed with the turnout," Martin said Tuesday night.
"That's impressive, for people to come in two days after the Christmas holiday to City Hall and cast a vote for only a referendum, not a candidate, just a referendum," he said.
Martin said the turnout "tells me that people care – they did their homework, they voted how they believe the city should move forward."
Voters Pat and David Hopkins had been visiting their son in New York City, but traveled home to Havre de Grace Tuesday to cast their ballots
"It wasn't convenient," Pat Hopkins said of the election's timing. "But I don't think it was the town's fault."
She noted the county's request to have an answer by the end of the year. That information was included in a Q and A posted on the city's website outlining details such as what the city would do with the property and how it would be financed.
Pat and David Hopkins voted in favor of the referendum.
"Towns that have waterfront parks and the ability for people to get to the water do better, we think," Pat Hopkins said.
The purchase price for the property is $1.5 million, and the city has already put down $400,000. The remaining $1.1 million will be financed by an interest-free loan that the city will repay to the county at $55,000 a year over 20 years.
City officials noted in the Q and A that the debt service should be covered in the annual budget without raising fees or taxes.
"It seemed like [the cost] was doable for the city," voter Andrea Allman said.
She and her husband, Pete, brought their two sons to the polling place Tuesday. Pete Allman noted they live near the Water Street parcels and it would be ideal to have a park in the area.
"It's just vacant, empty lots right now," his wife added.
Voter traffic was steady during the final hour polls were open. Voters cast their ballots in the City Council meeting room in booths shrouded by blue curtains.
George Deibel, chairman of the city's Board of Election Supervisors, explained the curtains were the idea of city administrators. The Harford County Board of Elections typically provides open voting stations, along with other equipment, during elections, but that was not the case with Tuesday's referendum.
"This was all totally new," Deibel said.
Out of eight voters who spoke to The Aegis after they cast their ballots, all voted yes. Many said they want the city to preserve waterfront land. City leaders plan to connect the park to the regional Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway Trail.
"It makes sense for them to do this," Sandra Pabst said. "Who would fight a waterfront park?"
Danielle Thomas, and her partner, Zach Poitras, said they want the land preserved for future generations, such as their 5-year-old daughter.
"We like to be good stewards of our planet," Thomas said.
The parcels have been owned by Harford County since 2014, when former County Executive David Craig put together a deal to purchase the land in the final months of his administration.
The land has been declared surplus under current County Executive Barry Glassman, who had opposed the purchase prior to taking office in December 2014. Glassman's administration had warned the county could have sold the property to the highest bidder, if voters did not approve the city's purchase.
The 3.2-acre site is in the 600 block of Water Street. Two of the lots are on the north side of Jean Roberts Park, with two more adjacent to the north side of Price's Seafood.
The property has been contaminated with diesel and heating fuel, gasoline and pesticides, based on studies conducted in 2005 and 2005; the Maryland Department of the Environment would lay out remediation measures after a concept plan for development has been submitted to the agency, according to the Q and A.
The area is north of the Amtrak rail line that crosses the Susquehanna River. Martin noted the property could be leased, within the next three years, as a staging area for the construction of Amtrak's new Susquehanna River Rail Bridge, so it could be awhile before the site becomes a public park.
He said city leaders will discuss that with project engineers.
Martin said city public works staff will spend this winter cleaning up trash and grading the ground to prevent flooding, followed by beautification work in the spring.
"It's definitely going to be a park used for recreational purposes, for the water access," Martin said.