Harford says it misstated builder's disclosure duty


Harford officials have apologized to a prominent county builder for wrongly stating last week that he was required to tell people interested in buying homes in Otter Creek Landing in Edgewood about Aberdeen Proving Ground's extensive work testing chemical weapons.

The apology upset some residents of Otter Creek Landing.

"Is Harford County for the people or the builders?" asked Bernice Prestianni, who moved from Rosedale into Otter Creek Landing in January 1994. "I'd like to know who's going to apologize to us."

The developer, Bob Ward, agreed in November 1993 to follow a " three-page memorandum of understanding with Harford officials recommending -- but not requiring -- his company disclose the work done at the base to prospective homebuyers, County Attorney Ernest Crofoot said.

Mr. Ward admitted last week he failed to follow that agreement -- reached with the county two years after Otter Creek Landing was approved -- when he sold homes to about 40 families.

County officials are "turning tail and backing off of a position they took earlier," said Ransom J. Davis, lawyer for about six Otter Creek families. "It's disappointing."

Mr. Ward's lawyers are drafting a letter for Mr. Crofoot to sign that would help protect the developer against future legal claims.

Edgewood residents, including many of those living in Otter Creek Landing, recently learned the Army is planning a difficult and potentially dangerous cleanup of unexploded shells on a former chemical weapons testing and training area known as the Nike site.

The 300-acre site, which gets its name from the Nike nuclear missiles based there during much of the Cold War, is within 3,000 feet of Otter Creek Landing.

The Army is holding a series of public meetings to explain the cleanup of the Nike site, which may require temporary evacuations of some residents when unexploded chemical weapons are removed.

Mr. Ward is one of the most successful developers in the county. He also is one of the biggest individual contributors of money to the political campaigns of Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, a Democrat; County Council President Joanne S. Parrott, a Republican; and other elected officials in Harford.

Mrs. Rehrmann said she apologized to Mr. Ward for incorrect statements by county officials that appeared in The Sun. She said she also told Mr. Ward that she expected the disclosures to be made, even if they are merely recommended.

"I wanted to make it clear that the county wanted disclosure to potential buyers," Mrs. Rehrmann said.

Mr. Ward "is not getting special treatment," said George Harrison, a spokesman for Mrs. Rehrmann. "We did request the developer to disclose the situation. It was the assumption that that would occur."

Mr. Ward said last week and again yesterday that future buyers at Otter Creek Landing would be provided written disclosures about the proving ground and its proximity. An additional 200 homes are being built at the development on Willoughby Beach Road.

Owners of another development planned on Willoughby Beach Road are required to disclose specific information about history of the Nike site. That project, called Broadneck Landing, has not yet been built. Mr. Ward's recommended disclosure is not that specific; it simply had to describe, in general, the proving ground's weapons testing mission.

Rehrmann administration officials and the state-run county Health Department began requiring or recommending disclosures around landfills in the county and the Army base about four years ago.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army have helped craft disclosure statements and encouraged the county to inform residents of potential environmental hazards and the base's $1 billion cleanup.

Some of the 400 residents at the first Army's public meeting April 1 complained that only one person -- Doug Richmond, an emergency preparedness official -- from the Rehrmann administration showed up.

Also attending were two County Council members, Republican Susan B. Heselton and Mrs. Parrott; 2nd District Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Harford Republican; and Del. Mary Louise Preis, a Democrat whose district includes Edgewood.

Another meeting is to be held today from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Magnolia Elementary School in Joppa.

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