A $2.4 million contract to purchase 19 blighted apartment buildings at the Villages of Tall Trees -- a key component in the plan to revitalize Essex-Middle River -- is expected to be approved tonight by the Baltimore County Council.
"The council is backing the revitalization initiative and so far they are very pleased," said Robert J. Barrett, assistant to County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.
County workers are also expected to meet this week with the first wave of more than 2,000 Tall Trees tenants who will be displaced by the demolition of 105 World War II-era brick buildings at the complex to make way for a park.
The county's negotiations with 37 property owners at Tall Trees continue, Barrett said, adding that most of the landlords will probably sell their buildings by the end of the year. If that happens, the county will not have to take the buildings by eminent domain, "the government's leverage of last resort," he added.
Sources said that each of the Tall Trees buildings has been assessed at from $92,000 to $195,000.
While generally supporting the redevelopment plan, an advocacy group official said that lower-income residents at Tall Trees "should not be subject to the whims of development plans."
"The residents of Tall Trees, or other rental properties impacted, should not be used as pawns. They should have choices and be apprised of their opportunities," said Deborah A. Povich, a lobbyist for the Maryland Center for Community Development.
Tall Trees is part of the most ambitious redevelopment project ever undertaken by Baltimore County government. The General Assembly approved a bill giving the county the power to condemn more than 300 residential, rental and business properties in Essex-Middle River, Dundalk and Randallstown. The centerpiece of Ruppersberger's initiative is the county's east side, where he wants to create a $50 million waterfront village.
Tall Trees was targeted for demolition before the condemnation bill was drafted. But Kingsley Park and Essextowne, complexes that are home to several hundred tenants, will be razed under the legislation.
While many embrace Ruppersberger's vision, some fear the condemnation power will be broadened in an effort to gentrify other neighborhoods along the county's 175-mile shoreline. Others have objected to what they describe as a heavy-handed attempt by government to confiscate properties.
Council President Joseph Bartenfelder said he sees "no problems right now" with the revitalization plan or the purchase of Tall Trees. "But I feel that if the county goes to condemning any property, we'll have lots of discussions on the council."
Dels. Diane DeCarlo of Essex and James Ports of Perry Hall are trying to scuttle the plan by putting it to a referendum in November. But officials continue to push forward with the Tall Trees project, the first major step to clearing more than 400 acres in the vicinity of Old Eastern Avenue and Eastern Avenue.
County spokeswoman Maureen Robinson said the Departments of Social Services, Aging and Health will meet with 143 families who live in the 19 buildings tomorrow and Wednesday to outline relocation assistance being offered by the county, state and federal governments.
Families who moved to Tall Trees before Dec. 1 and are current on their rent could qualify for up to $5,250. That includes 40 months of payments to cover the difference between their rent at Tall Trees and at a new home. Moving expenses and utility connections would be paid to vendors.
Tenants living at Tall Trees less than 90 days could get one month's rent and 12 months of rent differential paid to their next landlord. Security deposits, moving expenses and utility connection fees will be paid to the vendors.
Critics say tenants who are moved from Tall Trees will probably be relocated to other low-income apartments on the east side, doing little to reduce the density of such housing in Essex, Middle River and Dundalk.
Povich agrees. "There is the chance those moved from Tall Trees could be guided to communities where the schools are better, where jobs might be offered, but a highly unlikely one.
"What's more probable that these people will be shifted from one troubled place to another," Povich said. "And in the long run, we wind up with the same problems."