Harford County cannot auction off three small public buildings in downtown Bel Air even though it cannot use the vacant structures without costly upgrades, officials said.
By a vote of 4-to-3, the County Council denied a proposal to sell as surplus the adjacent structures at 29, 31 and 33 West Courtland St. across from the courthouse.
"I am fully aware that these are older buildings," said Councilman James V. McMahan. "But to surplus them now at a time when we desperately need space would not be prudent."
The county is experiencing a severe space crunch. Its agencies are spread throughout the county seat and the county is facing costly leases to accommodate growing staff and storage needs.
"I am deeply troubled that we are even entertaining the idea of surplusing, when we have debated at length the need for space," said Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti. "If it is too costly for us to renovate because of age and condition, I cannot imagine it would be cost-effective for a private developer."
Councilman Dion Guthrie called it premature to dispose of three buildings with more than 11,000 square feet of space, when rents downtown are costing as much as $15 a square foot.
"I can't see why this space can't be used," Guthrie said. "It makes no sense to sell this off and then go look for space."
Guthrie, Lisanti, McMahan and Council President Billy Boniface voted to keep the 19th-century buildings, which the county has owned since 1963.
Immediately across Courtland Street, the county state's attorney, whose staff is already crowded in five locations throughout Bel Air, is so pressed for room that files are stored in hallways and the courthouse foyer. But State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly said he would not consider a move into such inadequate, unsuitable space that reeks of mold.
"We are not interested, unless they are demolished," Cassilly said. "Then we would be glad to take the real estate. I don't understand the council's position. Why do they want to continue to own old buildings?"
Since the Bel Air Historic Preservation Commission has designated the buildings "historic within the downtown area," they cannot be razed, said Robert Fisher, town planner.
Councilman Chad Shrodes, who toured the buildings last week and voted to surplus them, called the structures decrepit and primitive.
"Here is a site near the courthouse," Shrodes said. "It's a great location, but if you have to build within those walls, it is better to let a private developer do it and get it back on the tax rolls."
The council, concerned with the downturn in the economy, earlier this year scrapped an $82 million global space plan, proposed by the county executive. That plan called for two new buildings and renovations to several other properties, including one on Main Street for Cassilly's staff.
The two-story Courtland Street buildings were not included in the renovation plan and were among those that the county intended to sell.
"All the infrastructure in these buildings is below today's usage standards," said Deborah Henderson, county director of procurement. "The buildings are narrow and not accessible. We cannot put anyone on the second floor. The bathrooms are inadequate. In one, the previous tenants could not use the air conditioning and computers at the same time."
Henderson has not determined costs to renovate, but one essential repair to the electrical system at 33 West Courtland, a 2,500-square-foot building appraised at $450,000, cost $75,000.
"By the time we did all the upgrades, you might have 6,000-square feet in all and it would come at a tremendous cost," she said.
The council's decision means the county will continue to maintain buildings that it cannot use, officials said. The largest one, a brick building at 29 West Courtland with 6,500 square feet, was appraised for $650,000, while 31 West Courtland with 1,400 square feet, was valued at $250,000.
Had the structures been sold at auction, they may have added more than $1 million to the county's general fund, Henderson said.
"I just don't see how these buildings can work for us," said Shrodes.