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Officials debate property seizure


Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and state Del. James F. Ports Jr. traded sharp jabs over a hotly contested renewal bill last night, with Ports' Annapolis voting record and Ruppersberger's choice of which land to seize coming under attack.

At the second in a series of six debates between the two officials, Ruppersberger challenged Ports' claim that he supports renewal of aging neighborhoods by naming millions of dollars in local projects he said the delegate has voted against in the state budget.

The projects included highway noise barriers, streetscape plans and school improvements in Ports' Perry Hall district.

Ports, a Republican, has never voted for the state operating budget during his 10 years in Annapolis.

"His record shows he thinks it's all right for government to do nothing," Ruppersberger said. "That's not what I believe."

After listening to the long list of projects, Ports paused and responded with a single explanation: "Wow."

"They say in politics when you are losing an issue you attack your opponent," Ports said. "That's what we're seeing."

Ports said the list distorted his position because he did not vote against individual projects but the state budget as a whole.

Earlier, Ports continued his nearly line-by-line critique of Senate Bill 509, the neighborhood renewal bill that will be voted on by county residents Nov. 7. Ruppersberger lobbied for the bill - which includes a provision for condemning 312 properties - in Annapolis this year. The General Assembly passed the measure, but opponents gathered more than 44,000 signatures to trigger a fall vote.

"When Baltimore County is telling you that SB 509 is not unprecedented, they are not telling you the whole truth," Ports said. "It's not the government's job to decide who fits a vision for an area and who doesn't."

In the auditorium of Randallstown High School, with about 200 people in attendance, Ports displayed pictures of decaying buildings that have not been targeted for condemnation and well-maintained buildings the county could seize.

"Waterfront property should not be only for the well-connected," Ports said.

Ruppersberger pointed to the millions of dollars his administration has invested in neighborhoods in the past six years, but said the law was needed because parts of Randallstown and other areas are lagging.

The executive also chastised his opponent for spreading misinformation, holding up a flier labeled "This Community Is Being Condemned By Dutch" that was distributed well beyond the redevelopment zones.

"Shame on anyone that would use these kind of tactics to scare people," Ruppersberger said. "We're here to build up our communities, not tear them down."

Ruppersberger challenged the opponents of SB 509 to a series of debates in May, when it became clear that grass-roots organizers would gather enough petition signatures to force a referendum.

The executive proposed the bill in January, arguing that several areas of the county had missed the benefits of the healthiest economy in a generation and needed extraordinary help. He proposed large-scale renewal projects in Essex-Middle River, Dundalk and Randallstown, to be accomplished in part through expanded eminent domain authority.

SB 509's list of the 312 addresses that the county may be interested in acquiring is a specific limit - something that is not found in other Maryland municipalities that have similar condemnation authority.

Many owners of the Baltimore County properties on the list say they were blind-sided and were not told of the county's plans until the bill was heading toward approval in Annapolis. Ruppersberger acknowledges the error and says he should have contacted owners sooner.

The Ruppersberger administration is most interested in creating an upscale waterfront village in Middle River, with refurbished marinas, new restaurants, shops and homes. It is in that area that opposition has been most fierce. Several business owners and residents say they don't want to leave their property and have called the proposal a "land grab" to benefit wealthy developers at their expense.

Under state law, the government must pay property owners fair market value as determined by appraisals, plus moving costs and other expenses, if land is acquired through eminent domain.

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