Displaying a rare flash of independence from County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the Baltimore County Council is giving itself the right to halt the sale of public land.
The move, prompted by two recent high-profile deals, could limit some of the far-reaching power of the county's top elected official, who has expansive authority under the government blueprint approved by voters more than four decades ago.
"Our county executive has much more power in Baltimore County than the governor has in the state," said Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a North County-Owings Mills Republican. "In order to maintain a check-and-balance system that is healthy in democracy, there ought to be that check and balance on every sale."
But if council members were eager for a tussle, they'll be disappointed: Ruppersberger, himself a former councilman, says he won't fight the proposal.
"Other executives might look at it differently throughout the state, but I have no problems," Ruppersberger said. "I'm not looking at power; I'm looking at the end result."
The seven-member council is expected to approve a bill next month granting itself the option of voting on land sales, but how frequently it might use the option remains uncertain. The board has shown little appetite for bucking Ruppersberger, who prides himself on building consensus behind the scenes.
The sale of public property could be a potentially critical issue in a county book-ended by aging residential neighborhoods and with little land available for future development. Old schools, public works facilities and underutilized parkland have become increasingly attractive locations for economic development.
While council members must approve any land purchase greater than $5,000, the executive has sole responsibility for selling county-owned land, a system different from those in several other area counties.
In the past year, two land sales that bolstered county coffers by $9.9 million sharpened the council's focus on the issue.
The Ruppersberger administration sold a highway maintenance facility on York Road, one of the last remaining commercial tracts on the busy thoroughfare and now slated to become a Target store. It also auctioned off a Long Green Valley horse farm donated to the county by a wealthy landowner.
Administration officials said both transactions made good business sense. But some neighbors said they were caught off guard and would have liked their council members to have had input on the decisions.
"It's just that we didn't know. These things come out of the woodwork," said Lou Miller of the Greater Timonium Community Council, an umbrella group of 28 homeowners' associations. "Any time an administration can do what it wants willy-nilly, it's not right. That's not having internal control like a business would have."
While Ruppersberger acknowledges having been "aggressive about selling land" in recent months, administration officials say they have not acted hastily and have kept community groups and elected leaders apprised of their plans.
Room for debate
But Robert Barrett, a top Ruppersberger aide who handled both the highway facility and horse farm sales, said more debate wouldn't hurt.
"There is always room for more dialogue. I couldn't agree more," Barrett said. "[Council members] sent signals to us that they want more dialogue, and we will respond to that."
McIntire said he's more concerned about future land sales than previous ones. He said his eyes were opened earlier this month when Gov. Parris N. Glendening attempted to sell state-owned land he declared unneeded after mothballing the proposed Intercounty Connector highway near Washington. But the three-member state Board of Public Works, on which the governor holds one vote, effectively quashed Glendening's plan.
"That made me think about it," McIntire said. "If that had been in Baltimore County, nothing could have stopped the sale of that land."
That's because the Baltimore County executive has broad powers under the county's charter, approved by voters in 1956. With no incorporated cities or towns in the county, Ruppersberger is a strong executive serving 725,000 people and overseeing a $1.7 billion budget.
Not counting the county's school system, he has direct or indirect control over more than 1,300 of the county's 7,800 jobs.
When it comes to selling land, Ruppersberger has more control than several of his colleagues. In Anne Arundel, Howard and Prince George's counties, the county council must formally declare public land as surplus before it can be sold.
But no such mechanism exists in Baltimore County.
"I didn't realize how strong the executive is until I got in there," said Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican. "We don't want to harm the executive. We just want to keep a balance."
Concerned about the potential redevelopment of county land after it's been sold -- the York Road corridor where Target will build is already congested, he says -- Skinner is combing through other public property in his district and will recommend rezoning some of it to prevent future surprises.
McIntire said his eye is cast for other areas where the council could play a greater role. But when asked what he might target next, he was circumspect: "I take it one day at a time, my friend," he said.