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OK for purchase of property likely Risks called minimal in contaminated area


The Columbia Council is likely to approve a controversial $1 million purchase of about 5 acres -- including a contaminated parcel near two closed hazardous waste dumps -- after an attorney advised the board that environment risks are minimal.

But that advice based on an environmental study doesn't necessarily mean the council -- the Columbia Association's board of directors -- will go forward with construction of a $350,000 recreational vehicle storage facility on part of the land. That depends on an RV park's financial viability, council members say.

"The report clearly says if we want to go forward with the RV lot, there are no legal environmental reasons not to," said the council's vice chairman, David W. Berson.

The land deal between the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer, and the nonprofit association it created has been criticized by some.

It has been contingent on the outcome of the environmental study of the five acres -- in two separate parcels -- in East Columbia's old General Electric Co. appliance manufacturing park.

But the transaction involves an unusual twist that makes it a bargain, council members say, even if they build nothing on either of the parcels.

In exchange for an inflated land purchase price, Rouse has agreed to place under CA's annual property levy two large properties now excluded from the charge, Snowden Square shopping center and a nearby planned high-density residential development. That would generate about $300,000 annually for the CA.

The RV park is proposed for one of the two parcels, three acres southeast of Snowden Square shopping center. The council has no plans for the second parcel included in the deal, a 2.3-acre lot in the nearby, Rouse-developed Gateway Plaza office park.

However, the association staff has suggested building a $1 million "executive fitness center" targeted to businesses in the Rouse-developed office park, also on the former 1,100-acre GE site -- a fitness center that could help Rouse market the office park.

The $31,000 study by PMT & Associates Inc. of Timonium found no contamination on the Gateway parcel, but showed:

* The former GE park is on state and federal lists for hazardous waste cleanup and monitoring.

* Heavy metals were detected in ground water samples and low levels of contaminants in soil samples on the 3-acre parcel tentatively slated for an RV park.

* Two hazardous waste dumps adjacent to the RV site have been capped, and tests last year showed "no elevated levels" of heavy metals in ground water, which flows away from the parcel.

* State law forbids construction activity near the dumps that would disturb monitoring wells, but CA's attorney says that would not forbid building an RV parking lot there.

* Two old GE buildings scheduled for demolition on the RV site contain hazardous materials, including asbestos, lead-based paints and possibly polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

* Prior tests revealed petroleum contamination of ground water and soil on the RV site from two underground storage tanks, which have been removed or "properly abandoned." Water flow is away from the parcel.

But environmental conditions shouldn't prevent the association from buying the parcels, wrote Randall M. Lutz, a Baltimore attorney hired to advise the council.

"The likelihood of any liability arising from the environmental condition of these parcels is remote," Mr. Lutz concluded in a memo after reviewing PMT's study. It's "highly unlikely" that further pollution cleanup would be ordered because extensive corrective actions already have been taken, he wrote.

The Smith, Somerville & Case attorney will earn an estimated $14,000 from CA for his counsel.

Council members say they now have more confidence to complete the deal, tentatively approved last March. Members say an RV park would help resolve violations of Columbia's architectural guidelines, which prohibit campers and boats on residential lots.

The environmental report is "actually better than I expected," said Councilman Gary Glisan.

But some members still have doubts. "Some people want it to be foolproof," said Councilman Roy T. Lyons, who supports an RV facility.

The board has asked association staff to provide an RV park cost-benefit analysis. "We need to see that before we can make a decision," Mr. Berson said.

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