The Harford County Council narrowly approved tax-increment financing for the James Run Corporate Campus project at Route 543 and I-95, with those supporting it calling it an important opportunity for the county.
The legislation passed by a vote of 4 to 3, with council members Joe Woods, Jim McMahan and Chad Shrodes voting against it, questioning what they called the re-definition of "mixed-office" zoning and the possibility of unfair promotion of certain property owners.
Councilman Dick Slutzky, however, listed several large projects the county had previously pinned its economic hopes on that did not pan out, and he said it is important to move in a new direction.
He noted he and Councilman Dion Guthrie were the only ones serving on the council 16 years ago when the mixed-office designation was first discussed as .
The county will issue up to $23 million in special obligation bonds, at a maximum interest rate of 9 percent annually, for the 111-acre site, which includes the former Bren Mar Park golf course, that would become a mixed-use office and retail development.
In a controversial move in July, project developers replaced a portion of the planned office space with lodging houses that will have almost 700 rooms and a clubhouse and other hotel-like amenities, essentially extended stay housing.
Guthrie said the project would have an economic impact of more than $90 million on the county, versus the $70,000 in taxes the site generates by just sitting there, as Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti had pointed out.
Slutzky said the county never envisioned the GATE project at Aberdeen Proving Ground or what the BRAC-related changes through the new Army agency that moved to Harford, C4ISR, have brought.
He said the county had higher hopes for the HEAT Center, which won't to be able to compete since Towson University is moving across from Harford Community College.
Meanwhile, the recently-built Merritt property in Aberdeen is "sitting empty next to Target," he said, noting the project was supposed to include more buildings but is languishing.
"There isn't a person in there," Slutzky added..
Council president Billy Boniface concurred.
"My nephew has worked on the project and he said nobody has come in to look at that building," Boniface said of the Aberdeen project. "That's why they packed up and moved out of there."
Slutzky explained it will be difficult to get any defense contractors to move into office space in Harford County because of requirements by the Department of Defense.
"They're not coming here because they don't know if there'll be a contract until the first of January," Slutzky said.
"We have the opportunity to do something else that is the economic engine of Harford County," he said. "We have an opportunity to employ Harford County citizens; we have an opportunity to bring in jobs."
Boniface said it is a creative opportunity to fund county infrastructure, since Harford should not be expecting money to come from the state.
"I don't see it as a risk, I see it as a sound investment," he said of the TIF.
Guthrie said the county has only done this once before but other Maryland jurisdictions grant TIFs all the time.
"I think the positive side of it certainly outweighs the negative tremendously," he said. "It's very common. It's a good way to finance new roads and new projects."
He thought James Run makes sense for the county.
"It's certainly a large project. It's a large project that's going to be in a very good place," he said. "It's a perfect place for what they're talking about building."
Lisanti said the TIF arrangement would provide much-needed funding for roads, and the mixed-office designation of 16 years ago might not make sense today.
"You know what a 'planned employment center' is today? An iPad and an iPhone. And I carry them in my purse," she said. "The idea of a planned employment center may no longer be relevant."
McMahan, meanwhile, said his constituents had a number of questions about the TIF and did not feel the project fit the original criteria as intended by the zoning.
"Why aren't we following the legislation that was passed for the mixed-office [zoning]? In 2008, this council and other interested parties, including the developer, all sat in this room and developed" an agreement on MO zoning, he said.
"The purpose was to build a well-defined and well-built employment center in Harford County for high-tech and highly enumerated jobs," he said. "Why are we allowing the MO to be prostituted?"
Calling the parcel "the most pristine piece of real estate" between here and Delaware, he said: "Lets do it right, let's do it to last. We only have one shot at this."
Woods, who owns a business on Main Street in Bel Air, said most of his Fallston constituents also disagree with this project, as it gives unfair advantages to certain business owners.
"I have a fundamental problem with government getting involved in basically picking winners and losers and possibly setting up unfair advantages," Woods said. "People in Fallston are job makers too, and they say, 'You're not bringing me jobs.'"
"An open piece of grass is not a rundown area. The Fallston Mall is a run-down area that a TIF would work for," he said.
Boniface said he wants to see this move forward as a lodging house as well.
"They don't need a TIF to move forward with what's been approved. It's an apartment complex," he said, but then voted in support of the project because the TIF is an "excellent" way to get things moving.
Boniface expanded his comments after the meeting.
"I want to see the project move forward as we [the council] have amended the TIF if the developer plans to use it," he explained. "They have approval to move forward from the County Executive's side of the street with only lodging houses, but the council has required the developer to resubmit a new site plan that includes the commercial piece also if they choose to use the TIF. We even amended to require that they come back before the council with the final plan to ensure that takes place."
Joseph Snee, a lawyer who represents the developers, said Monday that the change in the project's footprint was made in response to market demands for extended stay housing in Harford needed to house employees of defense contractors and the Army, people who stay locally for months at a time in connection with work at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
"With this [lodging house development] an employer can say, 'I need for my people to come in and out and need 45 units," and they well get that," Snee explained. "This will be the envy of Harford County; it will be like nothing we have seen."
Aegis staff member Allan Vought contributed to this article.