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County pays heavily to revitalize Dundalk

The Baltimore Sun

Pushing to revitalize a crime-ridden Dundalk neighborhood, the Baltimore County government is more and more often facing a question: How much is too much for land?

The county recently offered $170,000 for less than two-tenths of an acre in the old Yorkway neighborhood. When the owner countered with a price of $350,000, county officials reluctantly agreed to it.

The parcel is one of the last remaining pieces the county hopes to buy in the neighborhood, which the government eventually plans to sell for new development. The price the county would pay for the land is more than double that given by two independent appraisers.

It would also be higher than what the county has paid for any of the parcels it has bought in Yorkway -- including at least three others for prices above their appraised value.

County officials said the purchases are worthwhile, even if they are spending more than they hoped.

"People have more leverage than people had in the beginning" of the county's efforts to buy Yorkway properties, said Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat. "The intangible you don't see is that we had all those police calls for service down there that you can't put a price tag on. By us acquiring those buildings, we're transforming a neighborhood."

At a County Council work session yesterday, council members posed no questions to the government's chief of land acquisition about the purchase. The council is scheduled to vote on the deal Monday.

Councilman Kevin Kamenetz said he was concerned about the purchase price and would have raised questions had he not stepped out of the session. He said he plans to question administration officials this week.

"At what point do we draw the line in the sand?" said Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat. "They know they can hold up the county."

Redeveloping Yorkway's World War II-era apartment buildings has been a goal of the county government for years, seen as a key to wider revitalization on the east side. The county estimates that it will spend $17.2 million on the Yorkway project. The county intends to allow a private developer to rebuild on the 8-acre site.

In the latest deal at Yorkway, the administration would buy a two-story apartment building from Carolyn W. Heggie, who could not be reached for comment.

Treffer Appraisal Group appraised the property at $166,000, while appraiser Ilene Sheer set the value at $170,000.

In January, the council approved the purchase of three buildings for $935,000 -- 1 1/2 times the highest appraisal for the land.

The county is in talks to buy three other properties.

Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr., a Democrat, said the county has a limit on how much it will pay for the remaining parcels.

"You're not going to have taxpayers ripped off," Mohler said.

Mohler said that if property owners hold out for unreasonable prices, the county would look at alternative ways to acquire the property. He would not comment further, adding that he is optimistic deals will be reached.

Councilman Vincent J. Gardina said the county is hamstrung by its policy of not using condemnation powers for economic development. In other counties, governments are able to use the threat of eminent domain as leverage in negotiations with property owners, he said.

Gardina said he will support the latest purchase in Yorkway because of the reduction in crime and other benefits that revitalization would bring.

"We've made a lot of people rich because of these deals," said Gardina, a Towson-Perry Hall Democrat. "But in the long term, it is a benefit to the community."

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