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County estimates board votes to buy three HdG properties for future Water Street park

Water Street property
(TED HENDRICKS AEGIS STAFF, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

By a 4-3 vote Thursday morning, the Harford County Board of Estimates approved the $1 million purchase of three adjoining waterfront lots in Havre de Grace to be used as a park.

The properties are on Water Street along the Susquehanna River, north of the Amtrak bridge and between the Havre de Grace Marina and Jean Roberts Park. They are part of a tract that was the site of an oil delivery terminal that closed several years ago. The owner, listed in tax records, is MTBR Yacht Club LLC of Columbia.

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Before voting, the board discussed the property acquisition in a closed session that lasted an hour.

The board's vote reflected the division between Harford County Executive David Craig, who has been trying for more than a year to buy five contiguous properties in the 600 block of Water Street, and Council President Billy Boniface and a majority of the County Council, which has tried to block the acquisitions.

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As an estimates board member, Boniface voted Thursday against buying the additional three parcels, as did Warren Hamilton, the council's citizen board member, and Jay Van Deusen, the county executive's citizen member.

"What we did today was wrong on so many levels, I can't even begin to tell you," Boniface said. "We're paying too much money for the property, and we're taking too much risk on what the potential cleanup will be."

Craig, who chairs the board, Procurement Debbie Henderson, Public Works Director Tim Whittie and Treasurer Kathryn Hewitt voted for the purchase.

Last November, the council rejected Craig's proposal to acquire the five Water Street parcels for almost $3.5 million, for which the county executive wanted to fund for over several budgets. Then, he went ahead and bought the 39,000-square-foot parcel in February for $700,000, using money already available in the budget.

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Craig said afterward the purchase will not include a fourth parcel, which is being leased by the state for storage while the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge north of the site is being refurbished. That parcel is believed to be the most heavily contaminated from previous activities on the property.

He said the parcels approved for purchase Thursday will connect the previously purchased parcel at 627 Water St. with Jean Roberts Park.

"Waterfront property has a high price, no matter what," he said.

He said two smaller parcels, encompassing three-fourths of an acre, are along the west side of Water Street, adjacent to the north end of Price's Seafood, and will be used for parking and public restrooms. The third parcel, 1.5 acres, is along the east side of Water Street on the north side of Jean Roberts Memorial Park.

"It's a significant purchase for the people of Harford County," Craig explained. "It provides public access to the waterfront; it will provide a passive park for [visitors] to go to."

Craig said the City of Havre de Grace will contribute $400,000 toward the purchase price, along with $200,000 toward cleanup costs. The property owner will also contribute $150,000, or $50,000 per parcel, toward the cleanup, he said.

Craig said county's $600,000 share will be drawn from a $300,000 dedicated fund established by legislation introduced by Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, the only council member who has supported the project, and $300,000 from parks and recreation capital funds set aside for property acquisition.

He also said the city will oversee the purchase of the final 1.3-acre parcel along the riverfront.

Boniface, who like Craig is due to leave office on Dec. 1, moved to delay acting Thursday in order to allow the county auditor, council attorney and officials from the administration of incoming county executive Barry Glassman time to study it. The motion failed, 4-3.

He said an initial analysis has shown $286,000 in projected cleanup costs but noted there could be more contaminants.

Havre de Grace Mayor Wayne Dougherty, City Councilman John Correri and a number of city department heads attended the estimates board meeting, waiting patiently outside the meeting room during the closed session. Lisanti's legislative aide, Manley Calhoun, joined them.

"I think this pretty much falls right into what we're attempting to do and that's to reclaim as much waterfront property as we can for open space," Dougherty said.

He said funds have been set aside for the city's share of the purchase and grant money will be sought for the cleanup costs.

"I think it's a win-win situation for the City of Havre de Grace in reclaiming our waterfront property, and we're very thankful that the county is moving in this direction," Dougherty said.

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