The Harford County Council Tuesday unanimously nixed a land swap proposed by the Department of Parks and Recreation to avoid a possible legal battle over access to Swan Harbor Farm near Havre de Grace.
Council members called it an unfair deal for the county.
They questioned Parks and Recreation Director Arden McClune on a request to swap 11.14 acres with Griffith Davis, owner of adjacent Belle Vue Farm, for just 0.98 acres that covers part of the entrance road into Swan Harbor Farm.
The county land was appraised at $27,860.
The county has been sparring with Davis over the exact property lines in that area since the county bought Swan Harbor in the mid-1990s, McClune explained earlier this month.
Councilman Jim McMahan said he was very uncomfortable with the transaction and said he thought Davis could have a "hidden agenda."
"How did the figure of 11 to 1 ever come about? That seems to me a little excessive," McMahan asked McClune.
McClune replied the figure was based on the area requested by Davis.
"These were the areas he wanted if we wished to have the area surrounding [Swan Harbor Farm]," she said.
McMahan asked: "Was he somehow holding a gun to our head?"
McClune replied, "Not literally," and then defended Davis' position.
"I would never accuse him of such," she said. "Swan Harbor is used by thousands of visitors every year. He's been a good neighbor and has never truly threatened to block our access or impose on that… but there is always a question [of], it's not the clean legal access we would like to have."
McMahan nevertheless questioned the deal, and the appraisal of $27,860 for 11 acres.
"I just see too many gray areas," he said. "One, 11 acres for one acre; two, it seems to me we may perhaps be getting into a legal confrontation with Mr. Davis and he seems like a pretty sly fox out there. He may be using us, and I'm just not comfortable with this deal at all."
McClune pointed out that while the appraised value may seem relatively low, the land cannot be developed.
"Remember, this is basically a lengthy, narrow piece of property, and it has no building rights associated with it," she said.
The most recent survey, assessing the property lines that Davis contested, was done in 1999, McClune said in response to a question from Councilman Chad Shrodes.
Councilman Joe Woods said he agreed with McMahan's opinions, as did Shrodes.
Shrodes said he does not think it is ever a good idea to give away a piece of land that seems so undervalued.
Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti voted against the resolution to declare the county land surplus. While she did not speak against the swap, she talked about the importance of supporting Swan Harbor.
"It is a very big asset," she said. "Swan Harbor is one of the jewels of Harford County... I caution you not to throw the baby out with the bath water."
Council President Billy Boniface asked if the request was time-sensitive, and McClune answered, "Not particularly."
The Davis farm sits between two county-owned farms, Swan Harbor to the north and Oakington to the south. All three have frontage on and sweeping vistas of the Chesapeake Bay. According to state tax records, Swan Harbor is 465 acres, Oakington 312 acres and Davis' Belle Vue 356 acres.
Of the two county-owned properties, Swan Harbor is the most heavily used by the public. Its main house is a popular place for weddings and parties, and its fields and waterfront are considered a good place for bird-watching and other passive outdoor recreation activities.
The land the county was planning to swap with Davis would have come out of the Oakington tract, most of the former Tydings estate that the county acquired for $3 million in 1998, according to tax records.
Swan Harbor was acquired for $2.5 million in 1995 from Johns Hopkins University, which had acquired the property through a bequest and was rebuffed by the county when the university tried to get the property zoned for future development. The deal with the county did not include the northernmost 57 acres of the original farm that abutted an industrial park in Havre de Grace and was eventually developed for the Solo Cup facility.
Both the county's Swan Harbor and Oakington acquisitions were funded mostly with state Program Open Space funds.