Eager to kick-start his plans for east-side waterfront revitalization, Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger announced yesterday that the county has negotiated the purchase of two prominent commercial properties without the threat of condemnation.
"These property owners are willing sellers," Ruppersberger said at a morning news conference in Middle River. "We and they are happy we have done business together."
The county plans to purchase Ensor Bros. Ice House and Don's Crabs, both at 1933 Eastern Blvd., and the Main Event nightclub at 1925 Eastern Blvd. If the purchases are approved by the county council, the properties will cost the county $480,000 each.
The price for the 1933 Eastern Blvd. parcel, owned by Liberty Properties Inc., is 37 percent above the highest appraised value. The nightclub property, owned by Terry Lee Hutton, will sell for 11 percent above the highest appraised value. The county will also pay asmuch as $20,000 for each business to relocate.
The land will be used for open space along the banks of the Middle River.
Typically, the county's real estate purchases generate little attention. But these are anything but typical times on the county's east side, where a grass-roots movement has forced a referendum in the November election on Senate Bill 509, a Ruppersberger-backed law passed this year by the General Assembly. The law extends the county's eminent domain powers for economic development projects.
Observers believe that Ruppersberger, a likely candidate for governor in 2002, faces the toughest test of his political career over the issue.
Both properties were among the 312 addresses listed in Senate Bill 509 as potential targets for condemnation.
Yesterday, Ruppersberger invited state Sen. Michael J. Collins and Dels. Joseph J. "Sonny" Minnick and Nancy Hubers to the spot where he envisions upscale marinas, restaurants and single-family homes to announce the real estate purchases. The underlying message was unmistakable: Redevelopment of the Middle River waterfront need not be divisive; it can be a friendly, inclusive process with government and landowners working as partners.
Ruppersberger often has said that renewal of the Essex-Middle River area will proceed regardless of the vote in the referendum.
"I am committed to this part of the county," he said yesterday. "You have a proud past. I want you to have a great future."
Added Collins: "When this is concluded, we will all agree it is worth the herculean effort to bring this about."
Joining the crowd were several of the most vocal opponents of Senate Bill 509, who came from neighboring businesses to watch the event. Emotions remained calm, however, as the critics huddled with key Ruppersberger advisers to talk about potential land deals.
Still, opponents raised questions about the negotiated purchases.
Janice Hundt, who runs a nearby liquor store and auto tag-and-title shop, wondered if J. William Ruppert, president of Liberty Properties Inc., sold for a lower price than he should have.
Paying less for the first few lots would set a precedent for future deals and save the county money, Hundt said. And because Ruppert also develops property in the county, he may have other interests at stake, she speculated.
"He might not have been compensated for the full value," Hundt said. "There might be an exchange of something else to make up the difference."
County officials and Ruppert's attorney rejected the notion of a side-deal. Robert J. Barrett, a top Ruppersberger aide, noted the county was paying above appraised value.
"Bill Ruppert is a consummate businessman," said John Gontrum, his attorney. "The guy isn't in the business of giving things away."
Next week, administration officials said, the county will announce plans for the site of the former Riverdale apartments.