The top stories in Harford County in 2018

Harford County was once again under national scrutiny in 2018 after its third mass shooting in as many years.

The incident at a Rite Aid warehouse near Aberdeen in September left three employees dead, three others injured — and the county again looking for answers to combat gun violence.

It might have been the biggest story in Harford County in 2018, but others resonated with readers:

Election brings change

The November election brought sweeping change to the criminal justice system in Harford County, with voters electing a new state’s attorney for the first time in 36 years and unseating a judge.

Republican Albert Peisinger won the state’s attorney’s race in an election that pit the career Baltimore prosecutor against a defense lawyer. Peisinger campaigned on plans to bring the state’s attorney’s office into the fight against opioid addiction, to partner with neighborhoods to curb nuisance crime, and to designate a prosecutor to each council district.

With his win, Peisinger succeeds Joseph Cassilly, 65, who retires as one of the longest-serving public officials in Harford County history. Cassilly won election in 1982 and served nine consecutive terms.

Voters also elected Diane Adkins-Tobin as judge for Harford County Circuit Court. A prosecutor in the Harford County State’s Attorney’s Office, Adkins-Tobin unseated Judge Lawrence Kreis. He had been appointed to the bench the year before by Gov. Larry Hogan.

Adkins-Tobin was sworn in Dec. 3.

— Tim Prudente

More marijuana

Like much of Maryland, Harford County saw medical marijuana dispensaries blossom in 2018.

After medical marijuana hit dispensary shelves in Maryland in December 2017, RISE Joppa became Harford County’s first destination for patients to buy medical cannabis products when it opened in April.

Backed by former Raven Eugene Monroe, RISE took over a former liquor store on Pulaski Highway, where the dispensary debuted to positive reviews from patients.

Since RISE opened in Joppa, two more dispensaries have joined the county. True Wellness opened in Aberdeen, and Four Green Fields put down roots in Street. A second RISE location in Harford County is planned for Abingdon, though that location has not yet received a license from the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission.

Owned by Green Thumb Industries, RISE also has two more dispensaries in Bethesda and Silver Spring. The stores are part of a national chain with locations in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and California.

Maryland allows for two dispensaries in each of its 47 legislative districts. Three districts cover portions of Harford County, so there’s a chance the county could see new dispensaries in 2019.

— Sarah Meehan

Overdose deaths

Heroin and opioid-related overdose deaths were trending lower in 2018 as county government and hospital officials agreed to finance the construction of a new mental health facility to help combat an addiction scourge that resulted in a record 2,009 fatalities in Maryland last year.

Harford County officials reported that 20 people had died of heroin overdoses during the first six months of 2018, 11 fewer than died in the same period last year. Overall opioid-related overdoses also declined, from 50 in the first half of of 2017 to 46 over the same period this year.

Still, overdose deaths from drugs and alcohol were on pace for the same record-high of 101 fatalities that the county recorded last year. For the first half of this year, 53 people died of drugs and alcohol intoxication, one more than for the same time frame in 2017. And the 38 people who died this year due to the presence of fentanyl – which has spurred the record increases across Maryland – was also one more than in 2017.

The possible leveling off or decline of heroin overdose deaths expected for the entire year is a welcome relief to the years-long increases in fatalities that culminated in a 20 percent increase from 2016 to 2017.

To help fight the overdose crisis, the county and University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health partnered on a crisis center that is expected to treat several thousand people each year with addiction and mental health issues. The Bel Air facility planned to include a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week residential crisis center, walk-in crisis assessment and stabilization center, a peer assistance program and community education.

The center is designed to serve as an entry point for services for residents and as an alternative for police and emergency services, who would normally transport people in crisis to the emergency room or even jail

The nonprofit center will have a $5.5 million operating budget funded through grants, the hospital and the county. The hospital paid the $1.5 million for construction of the building, slated to open in mid-2019. A hotline already is operating, as is a mobile service for residents.

— Doug Donovan

School safety

After the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, students from across the country flooded the nation’s capital to demand change. Among a massive crowd at the March for Our Lives were teenagers from Harford County, who had come to fight for gun control and reform.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School did more than just galvanize young people and inspire activism. It forced school districts around the nation to look inward, reconsidering the safety measures they had in place.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman allocated $1.2 million in his fiscal 2019 budget so that the Sheriff’s Office could expand its corps of school resource officers. Every middle and high school in the agency’s jurisdiction will now be home to an officer. Municipal police departments in Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace also assigned officers to schools within those communities’ boundaries.

“Over the past 20 years, we have witnessed the benefits of having deputies assigned to high schools. Those deputies are able to work directly with the students, build positive relationships, offering not only an authority figure, but also a role model,” Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said in November. “We know that during adolescence, students are more susceptible to poor life choices and the SRO is a critical member of the school community to help our young people in their journey to adulthood.”

— Talia Richman

Deadly storms

This was the wettest year on record across Maryland and much of the Mid-Atlantic, and the deluge turned deadly near Churchville in August.

By the middle of December, rainfall was closing in on 70 inches at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the region’s point of record, and similar precipitation was reported across Harford County. Normal annual precipitation is about 42 inches across the region.

Much of the surge of rain came during the summer months, hampering crops of pumpkins, sunflowers and other produce across the county.

Flash flooding killed three people in Maryland this year, and two of those casualties occurred Aug. 31 in southern Harford. Daniel Samis, a 67-year-old Abingdon resident, became trapped in floodwaters on Calvary Road south of Churchville, and Melissa Lehew and Kyle Bowman jumped into action to save him. But the waters swept away Samis and Lehew, a 34-year-old Darlington resident.

Devastating flooding also swept across Pennsylvania over the summer, sending a surge of rising waters down the Susquehanna River. Faced with record flows, Conowingo Dam owner Exelon Corp. was forced to open floodgates.

That sent a torrent of debris that clogged the Chesapeake Bay for weeks and prompted Gov. Larry Hogan to call on Pennsylvania to do its part to reduce runoff into the bay.

— Scott Dance

Power line battle

Resistance to Transource Energy’s $320 million power line project proposed across northern Harford County continued in 2018, and both supporters and opponents will make their cases before energy regulators in 2019.

Transource is trying to build 45 miles of new power lines, known as the Independence Energy Connection, across parts of Maryland and Pennsylvania. Lines would be built between Franklin County, Pa., and Washington County, and between York County, Pa., and northern Harford, ending at the Conastone Substation in Norrisville.

The project aims to relieve congestion on the power grid, something the company says would save utility customers $600 million over 15 years. But it is also expected to take over land that has historically been used for agriculture, something Hogan in August urged power grid operator PJM Interconnection not to ignore. Hogan requested the project’s footprint be rethought.

Transource officials say their proposal “best balances the need to reinforce the electric grid and the disturbance caused by the facilities.”

Opponents to the project were heartened in October when experts told Pennsylvania Utility commission the project was unnecessary because demand on the region’s power grid has declined since PJM began seeking proposals for the new transmission lines in 2014.

The debate will stretch into 2019.

Northern Harford County community leaders have been urging state legislators to pursue bills protecting property rights and constraining such massive energy projects. The General Assembly session runs from January through early April.

And both Maryland and Pennsylvania utility regulators will hold evidentiary hearings on the project early in the new year before considering whether to approve or deny it.

— Scott Dance

New medical complex

The University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health is continuing with its plans to close Harford Memorial Hospital and develop a new freestanding medical complex about five miles away in the city of Aberdeen that is expected to offer primary care doctors’ offices, specialty services, emergency care and behavioral health treatment.

Much of the services will be offered on an outpatient basis or requiring brief overnight stays, reflecting an effort in the state and beyond to provide services in a more efficient, less costly manner — outside the walls of traditional hospitals but still tethered to those hospitals. The project is similar to models the university health system plans in Prince George’s County and on the Eastern Shore.

For the cases that still require intensive or surgical care, Upper Chesapeake also plans to add capacity at it main hospital campus in Bel Air and will transport patients.

The move to close Harford after decades of service rankled some neighbors, who will now get services at one of the other locations. Hospital staff will also largely be split among the Aberdeen facilities and Bel Air hospital. Transitioning the Harford Memorial building was seen as impractical.

The three-pronged project — the hospital upgrade in Bel Air and a medical building and a behavioral health pavilion in Aberdeen — is expected to cost about $170 million to $180 million and requires approval from the Maryland Health Care Commission. Hospital officials expect the agency to consider the three applications by mid-2019.

The state agency said it is reviewing the information and seeking more information. If approved, construction is expected to take two years.

— Meredith Cohn

New school superintendent

In the middle of the year, Harford County saw a transition in school leadership as Barbara P. Canavan, who had led the system for five years retired. On July 1, Sean Bulson, 49, a former vice president with the University of North Carolina, took control of the mid-sized school system with 37,800 students.

A former Montgomery County public school administrator, Bulson was returning to Maryland after leaving to be superintendent of Wilson County Schools in North Carolina, a district with 12,000 students and 25 schools.

While the school system is one of the highest performing in central Maryland, Bulson faces a tough budget year, with rising health care and employee costs. In October, Bulson said he was considering a considering a hiring and spending freeze to close a $35 million budget gap. In December, Bulson outlined a proposal to cut 153 teaching and 26 administrative positions through attrition, as he attempted to trim the budget enough to make it acceptable to the county executive and council. Unless the county decides to fund schools at a higher level, students will have higher class sizes in the fall.

— Liz Bowie

Ripken Stadium dispute

A dispute between Aberdeen and the city's most famous family continued in 2018.

It centers on management of city-owned Ripken Stadium, where the minor-league baseball team owned by Cal and brother Bill Ripken plays its home games.

The IronBirds are the Orioles' Class A New York-Penn League short-season affiliate. The team name is a play on Hall of Famer Cal Ripken's "Iron Man" moniker, derived from surpassing Lou Gehrig's mark of 2,130 consecutive games played.

The issue dividing the parties is focused less on baseball season than on what happens at the stadium when there are no games.

In a suit filed in Harford County Circuit Court in October, Tufton Professional Baseball LLC — owned by the Ripkens — accused the city of not living up to its stadium commitments under an 18-year-old agreement.

The suit says Aberdeen has not adequately undertaken capital maintenance and improvements, as outlined in the agreement. It says the Ripkens' company, rather than the city, should legally have the right to manage non-baseball events at the stadium -- such things as charity fund-raisers and weddings that bring in revenue.

“Local governments are held to their contractual obligations just like private citizens," the suit says.

Cal Ripken Jr. was born in Aberdeen and remains a local icon. "Contracts are meant to be honored. Tufton has done its part. The City needs to do the same," said John Maroon, a spokesman for the Ripkens, in a statement.

Aberdeen Mayor Patrick McGrady said he was limited in what he could say because of the litigation.

"The city is committed to upholding the concession agreement as written and we look forward to getting clarification from the courts as to where we have disagreements with Tufton," McGrady said in an interview.

"I look forward to an amicable resolution. That's the goal," he said.

— Jeff Barker

Landfill turned pot of gold?

Owners of a would-be landfill in Harford County continue to earn $12,000 in interest each day that the county appeals a court order to pay the company a $45 million judgement.

Maryland Reclamation Associates had planned on building an 55-acre landfill to take debris from construction projects. The proposed dump, which sits next to a historic African-American church and gravesite, received initial county approvals three decades ago, but a change in government and rising community opposition to the project led to new laws that restricted where rubble dumps could be located.

The rubble would have been piled up in mounds six to seven stories high, then covered with earth, according to plans submitted to the county in 1989.

The site could not meet the new restrictions. Maryland Reclamation Associates, whose owner is Richard D. Schafer of Darlington, tried to get a variance to the new zoning laws, and then sued the county government when it was denied. Maryland Reclamation lost its legal petitions against the county until this year, when the company brought the case before a Baltimore City jury contending that its property was devalued and made worthless by the county through a “regulatory taking.”

The jury agreed and awarded the company $45,420,076, million as compensation following a 10-day trial before retired Baltimore City Circuit Judge John Addison Howard.

The county is appealing the verdict, but had to post a bond for the judgment while the case is pending. The total amount of the bond was $49,962,083.60, according to court records.

The county’s appellate brief to the Court of Special Appeals is due Dec. 21 and Maryland Reclamation’s response is due Feb. 19, 2019. A hearing with oral arguments is scheduled for June.

"This case began in 1990 and the county has successfully defended every significant legal challenge brought by MRA,” said Harford spokesperson Cindy Mumby. “The county anticipates that we will be successful on this challenge as well."

Maryland Reclamation’s attorney in the civil case, Brett Ingerman, said the judgment was based on what the landfill would have been worth had it been in operation as a dump site, plus interest. The total amount now due is up to $48.5 million, Ingerman said.

— Catherine Rentz with Allan Vought and David Anderson

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