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Harford County moves forward with sale of Mt. Soma site for Bel Air reservoir

Harford County government is moving forward with the sale of a tract of land just outside the Bel Air town limits to a privately owned water company that will use part of the site for a storage reservoir.

The selling price for the 68.6 acres, once part of a farm known as Mt. Soma and acquired by the county two decades ago for use as parkland, is $549,000, or approximately $8,000 an acre, according to a resolution to declare the property surplus that was introduced to the County Council Tuesday evening.

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The county bought the property for $432,000 from a bank that had foreclosed on a developer, according to tax records.

The Mt. Soma property is bordered by Winters Run on the east, Route 1 on the south and the Bel Air Bypass on the north. There is existing commercial development on the west side of the property, where construction is under way on a 250-unit apartment complex that is being built on 17.7 acres. Other commercial development is planned nearby. Old Joppa Road which dead ends at Route 1 is due to be extended to the north to serve the apartment development.

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The surplus property resolution, which the council did not discuss Tuesday, is the first step in the sale of the county's property to Maryland American Water. A public hearing will be held on the resolution prior to the May 5 council meeting.

Council President Richard Slutzky said after Tuesday's council meeting that the sale would enable Maryland to build a catch basin with a lined bottom to hold water during drier seasons and should ensure an adequate future water supply for the Bel Air area.

Slutzky said the county has sought other ways to secure additional water supply in recent years.

He also said Baltimore City, which has been supplying most of the water for unincorporated areas of Harford County, has signaled within the past year or so that it will not be providing the county with as much water in the future.

Slutzky said that means Harford will continue needing to find ways to be independent with its water supply.

Maryland American, a subsidiary of New Jersey-based American Water Company, supplies water to the Town of Bel Air and some nearby areas. The local company's rates are regulated by the Maryland Public Service Commission.

Maryland American uses Winters Run as its main source of water, which is treated at a plant on Route 1, just across the stream from the Mt. Soma property. The company also has an agreement to purchase some water from the county during dry periods.

The sale of the Mt. Soma property was set in motion last fall when former county executive David Craig and Maryland American officials signed a new water sales agreement with the intention of negotiating a deal so the water company could build a reservoir on the property and address issues with its supply.

County Executive Barry Glassman endorsed that plan after succeeding Craig on Dec. 1 and has taken the initiative to sell the Mt. Soma property outright.

The agreement also provided the company with an option to purchase additional amounts of water from the county while the reservoir project moved forward and, as a result, in December the Town of Bel Air government was able to lift a more-than-year-long moratorium on development that had been imposed by state environmental officials because of concerns about the Winters Run water supply being adequate during a major drought.

The prior agreement, in effect since 1996, gave the company the right to purchase up to 500,000 gallons daily. The additional amount the company may purchase is 40,000 gallons.

County government spokesperson Cindy Mumby said the sale of the Mt. Soma property will permit Maryland American Water to build the "upland impoundment" the company plans and would have few restrictions on use of whatever land isn't needed for the reservoir.

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"Please note there is a provision for an easement to allow access for maintenance of the historic barn on the property," she said. The Mt. Soma manor house, which had been vacant, was destroyed by a fire several years ago.

Mumby said the entire property is zoned for agricultural use and there are six development rights that could be used by the owner for up to six houses.

She said the selling price is based on an appraisal the county received last month from Campanella Realty & Consulting LLC, of Baltimore.

The appraisal carries a valuation date of Feb. 27, when appraiser Joseph A. Campanella made an on site visit to the property.

The appraisal notes the site has both county public water (supplied by Maryland American through county-owned lines) and sewer service available. There is a rundown frame house on the site the appraiser said adds no value.

The appraisal also notes the property's Fallston ZIP Code – 21047 – has sales of lots and homes "slightly higher priced than the county average" and also states that with regard to land sales of 12 acres or more: "Average prices have increased in the last year, up 8 percent. But there have only been 11 sales in the entire county. This is a reflection of a weakness in the overall market."

According to the appraisal, the minimum sale of the 11 was 12.28 acres for $100,000 – $8,143 an acre – while the maximum sale was 34.19 acres for $900,000 – or $26,323 an acre. The report doesn't provide the zoning for those properties. The average sale was $309,436 for 20.24 acres – $15,288 an acre.

Among five specific comparison sales in Harford and Baltimore counties listed in the appraisal, the largest tract was 55 acres in the Whiteford area that sold for $380,000 – $6,834 an acre – in July 2013. The most recent listed was 24.76 acres in Randallstown that sold for $515,400 – $20,816 an acre – in December 2014.

As to the property's marketability, the appraisal report concludes "the most likely buyer of the subject property is a local builder."

Mumby said selling the property to Maryland American would not preclude the new property owner from using a portion of the property for the reservoir and developing the rest, "although there has been no indication they plan to do anything else other than to address their water issue."

She also pointed out that any development other than what is already permitted would require county approved zoning changes.

Mumby said she did not know exactly how much land will be used by the reservoir, but explained the county administration decided it was preferable to sell the entire property rather than a portion.

A full sale, she said, "provides them with a buffer zone for the reservoir and streamlines the issue." It also would remove potential liability issues for the county if it kept part of the property for a future public use such as a park, she said.

The Mt. Soma property was originally settled as a farmstead by members of the Amos family, many of whom over the years have changed the spelling of their name to Amoss. The name Soma, is Amos spelled backward.

An Amoss family member said earlier this week that the family recently marked the 300th anniversary of their former ancestral home.

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Aegis News Editor Allan Vought contributed to this story.

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