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Havre de Grace to hold Dec. 27 special election on buying Water Street properties

The City of Havre de Grace will hold a special election Dec. 27, so voters can approve buying four properties on Water Street from Harford County for $1.1 million. The properties encompass 2.92 acres.
The City of Havre de Grace will hold a special election Dec. 27, so voters can approve buying four properties on Water Street from Harford County for $1.1 million. The properties encompass 2.92 acres. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

With one election barely behind them, voters in the Havre de Grace city limits are being asked to go to the polls again before the end of the year.

Havre de Grace is holding a special election Tuesday, Dec. 27, at City Hall to get voter approval to spend $55,000 a year for the next 20 years to buy undeveloped land on Water Street just north of Jean Roberts Park.

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"It seems like the day after the Christmas holiday is about the worst day for anything, yet alone an election," Joe Kochenderfer, a longtime Havre de Grace community leader and a former city councilman, said at Monday night's City Council meeting.

Mayor Bill Martin and the council members agreed with Kochenderfer, but said they have little choice because the Harford County government wants an answer before the end of 2016 about whether the city is going to buy the county-owned property.

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The Harford County Council approved resolutions on unanimous votes declaring surplus four parcels with addresses at 627 and 649 Water Street and the former Aberdeen High School building at 34 N. Philadelphia Blvd. Both resolutions were requested by County Executive Barry Glassman.

"We're sort of in a conundrum," Steve Gamatoria, the city council president, said. "That [Dec. 27] was probably the last date we could have had an election."

The city needs voter approval to finalize a purchase agreement with the county government, which bought the Water Street parcels two years ago with the understanding that Havre de Grace would contribute to the purchase, which it did.

Earlier this year, the administration of County Executive Barry Glassman asked the city to buy the properties outright and has since declared them surplus to move forward with the transaction. If the city does not go forward with the deal, county officials have said the properties could be sold or developed.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman is moving to unwind two controversial property acquisitions – one in Joppa, the other in Havre de Grace – made by his predecessor.

There was a memorandum of understanding between the county and the city in September or October 2014, Gamatoria said during his presentation at the city council meeting.

"The city already committed to the finances," Paul Ishak, Havre de Grace city attorney, said.

The Havre de Grace elected officials made it clear they think the special election will be a great opportunity for the city and its future generations, assuming the acquisition is approved.

"Everybody I talk to compliments" the Havre de Grace waterfront on the south end of the city, Gamatoria said. The south end of town is home to Tydings Park, the Concord Point Lighthouse and Lighthouse Keeper's house, the Maritime Museum, the Decoy Museum and, especially, the Promenade.

Gamatoria said the open land being discussed for purchase is priceless.

"It's certainly a huge asset to our north side of our city," he said.

Others concurred.

"Waterfront property in Havre de Grace has proven to be invaluable to our city landscape," Councilman David Glenn said.

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.

"I am disappointed in Harford County," Councilman David Martin said about the change in the county's plans, which leaves the city on the hook for another $1.1 million. "I'm glad the county is giving us the opportunity to purchase it."

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The Water Street properties are 2.92 acres and were bought by the prior county administration in 2014 for future use as a waterfront heritage park. Under terms of a resolution approved the County Council in October, the properties will be transferred to the city for $1.1 million, about $600,000 less than what they cost in two separate transactions.

"The [county] administration changed at the county and the plan changed," Gamatoria said.

Havre de Grace paid $400,000 in 2014 when the MOU was done. The properties encompass what amounts to about two-thirds of the open space between Roberts Park, north of the Amtrak railroad bridge where Otsego dead ends at Water Street, and the Havre de Grace Marina at 723 Water St. There's also an open lot on the opposite side of Water Street, just north of Price's Seafood, that's part of the purchase.

Under the terms of the deal, Gamatoria said, the county government will finance the purchase by holding an interest-free loan; thus, the city's repayment obligation will be $55,000 annually for 20 years.

Glassman's administration has been divesting the county of selected properties by declaring them surplus, clearing the way for them to be sold off. In addition, the county has also declared land in Joppa, intended for a trash transfer station, and the old Aberdeen High School on Route 40 surplus land. The county offered the former high school building to the City of Aberdeen for $1.

City officials also said the $55,000 annual loan repayment might not be the only cost to the city.

Harford County government officials are proceeding with their efforts to purchase waterfront property in Havre de Grace, despite strident opposition from a county councilman and a small group of Joppatowne residents.

"There's some contaminants that we're aware of," Gamatoria said. "The cleanup costs are very contingent on the use. We are not going to put a day care center there, or drive pilings through it."

Keeping it pretty much the way it sits will limit what the city has to do for contaminant abatement, but there will still be additional costs.

"I want to be clear, there will be some additional carrying charges," Gamatoria said.

As for the why there will be a special election, city officials said the inquired about adding the question to Tuesday's ballot, which was flatly rejected by the Harford County Board of Elections, Gamatoria said. And it couldn't be added to the city's upcoming May election ballot because it would've been too late to answer the county.

Gamatoria asked if the city election board was prepared to get going on planning for the Dec. 27 vote.

"They are waiting for our call tomorrow morning," Ishak said.



Harford County’s “Choose Civility” campaign kicked off with a breakfast event at the Water’s Edge Events Center in Belcamp on Wednesday.

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