Rod Sterry, an insulator factory worker from Wagner's Point, had promised to take his wife, Pat, out for their 22nd anniversary last night. She had hoped for a drive to Ocean City.
Instead, he obliged with a trip to City Hall for a picket line walk so cold it froze their friend Larry Sturgill's fingers, followed by nearly three hours in a City Council hearing room boiling over in heated exchanges over a bill to condemn his home and relocate the polluted neighborhood's residents.
By the end, a possible compromise had emerged in the bitter controversy over how to shut down century-old Wagner's Point and relocate its 270 residents.
Members of the council's Taxation and Finance Committee, chaired by 3rd District Councilman Martin O'Malley, said they plan to introduce a bill that would:
Give Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke the power he wants to condemn the homes there and build an addition to a sewage treatment plant on the site of the heavily industrial neighborhood surrounded by petrochemical plants and tormented by cancer deaths.
Force the mayor to provide information about relocation and the appraised value of residents' homes and provide residents a 60-day window to negotiate buyouts with the city before Wagner's Point can be condemned. Residents believe a window will give local chemical companies and state and federal governments, which have pledged to help with the relocation, the time they need to come up with a package. The city has refused to cooperate with industry or other governments on a joint buyout.
"We need to move on this," said 6th District Councilman Melvin Stukes, whose district includes Wagner's Point. "The city has made this frustrating by insisting on withholding information. Don't be playing around with people's lives."
Residents seemed amenable, but it was not clear last night whether the Schmoke administration would agree. Last year, residents asked for a voluntary buyout of the neighborhood. The city agreed, but in recent months has refused to answer basic questions about the relocation and its costs. Pressed for explanations, city lawyers have said that eminent-domain legislation and the rules for use of the city's wastewater funds leave them no flexibility. Residents should trust the mayor, the lawyers said.
Last night, city lawyer Richard E. Kagan struggled to answer increasingly bitter barbs from O'Malley. Under questioning, Kagan acknowledged that at least 40 of the city's appraisals, expected to be done in three weeks, have taken three months.
Later, Kagan was forced to acknowledge that no statute or charter precluded negotiations. After Kagan maintained that the city had given the appraisal information to no one, U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican whose district includes a tiny sliver of southern Baltimore, said that the mayor had told him that early appraisals of the homes ranged from $35,000 to $62,000.
"You could start," O'Malley told Kagan after the revelation, "by sharing information with City Council members in Baltimore that only Republican congressmen in Washington currently get."
In the balcony, Rod Sterry waited his turn to speak. After O'Malley called his name, he fought back tears as he talked about industrial pollution and neighbors who had died of cancer.
"This is our big night," he said, "and we had to come here."
Pub Date: 2/26/99