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Dundalk government center stalled amid legal, political wrangling

Legal, political fights continue to stall redevelopment of Dundalk's N. Point Government Center.

On a busy corner in Dundalk, the North Point Government Center — once the site of county offices, a police precinct and recreation programs — stands mostly vacant, surrounded by baseball and soccer fields.

A sign advertises plans for a new shopping center coming soon, but the development remains stalled due to court cases and a political battle of wills between Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who has championed the redevelopment, and state leaders who have declined to give needed approval to the property's sale.

The stalemate reflects strained political relationships between Kamenetz on one side and Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot on the other. Hogan, a Republican with strong approval ratings, is likely to run for re-election in 2018, and Kamenetz and Franchot are widely viewed as potential Democratic candidates to oppose him.

Officials at Baltimore-based Vanguard Commercial Development, which won a bid to buy the government center for $7.6 million and redevelop it, filed a lawsuit seeking to move the project along, saying "the project's viability ... is threatened" by the stalemate.

The company won in court, but the state appealed the ruling, so Vanguard doesn't know when it can finalize the deal and begin construction on Merritt Pavilion, a center the developer calls "a marquee community development for Dundalk."

"We look forward to the day we break ground and move full steam ahead," Vanguard's Leonard Weinberg said in a statement.

Hogan and Franchot sit on the state Board of Public Works, which must sign off on the sale to Vanguard — a requirement that stems from a 1981 deal that conveyed the building from the county school system to the county government. Because the state held school construction bonds on the property at the time, it must approve sale of the land.

When the deal came up for approval last fall, the board failed to act, with Franchot citing residents' opposition to the sale and calling it a "putrid scheme" by the county.

"This is something that has absolutely tormented the community," Franchot said at the time. "It doesn't have a single iota of local support."

County officials say there's a lot at stake for Dundalk, an area experiencing commercial renovations and new housing developments. Across the street from the center, Texas Roadhouse and Chili's restaurants have opened in the Merritt Park Shopping Center. And residents are hopeful that the redevelopment of the former steel mill site in nearby Sparrows Point will draw more investment to the community.

Weinberg said he has fielded inquiries from Panera, Chipotle, Five Guys and Johns Hopkins Medicine as potential tenants for Merritt Pavilion. The project also would include a gas station, retail shops and offices. The county would keep some of the land and build a smaller recreation center.

But Vanguard's project faces other opposition as well. A group of residents filed a zoning lawsuit against the project, without success.

County Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican, also opposes the sale and said he's frustrated that the issue remains unresolved.

"We have sort of an older building that has not been maintained ... and it's a mystery what the outcome will be," Crandell said.

Crandell, who was elected in 2014, said he and many residents would like to see a renovated community and recreation center on the site rather than see it sold for commercial development. The County Council voted to approve the contract to sell the center before Crandell took office.

The lawsuits and community outcry are a result of a poor process, Crandell said.

"This is what happens when you try to sell public assets without community input," he said.

Hogan and Franchot agree. Peter Hamm, a spokesman for the comptroller, said the county government's push to sell the center "reeks to the high heavens."

"They appear zealously committed to selling off the community's modest recreation center to a developer," Hamm said. "This is bad government by definition."

Douglass Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, said the governor remains opposed to the plan, "because the vast majority of Dundalk residents have and continue to be diametrically opposed to it."

Mayer noted the Board of Public Works asked the county in the fall to go back to residents and "develop a plan that had local support."

"The county either failed or declined to do that, and therefore the issue hasn't been addressed at the BPW since," Mayer said.

Kamenetz has stuck by the deal, saying his administration held plenty of meetings to gather community input. He has said the project ultimately will benefit Dundalk.

The county executive has tangled with Hogan and Franchot before — most notably over the pace of installing air conditioning in Baltimore County schools. Hogan and Franchot have insisted the county should install portable air conditioners immediately, while Kamenetz has said it's financially prudent to take more time to install central air conditioning.

With the government center project stalled, Vanguard sued the county in January in an attempt to force the sale to be finalized. The developer asked a Baltimore County circuit judge to strike the part of the deed requiring state approval and compel the county to finalize the sale. In court documents, the county agreed, but the state intervened and objected to striking its oversight of the deed.

"Merritt Pavilion is unable to proceed with construction, and the transfer of the land ... is at a standstill," Vanguard said in the lawsuit. "If the question is not decided in a prompt and timely manner, tenants will be lost, costs will become unmanageable, and the project will fail."

Judge Robert Cahill Jr. ruled in favor of Weinberg's company in March, saying that since the school bonds had long since been paid off, the state no longer has a financial interest in the property. Cahill declared invalid the part of the deed requiring state approval for the sale.

The state is appealing to the Court of Special Appeals. Officials in the state attorney general's office, which is representing the state in the case, declined to comment.

Meanwhile, neighbors who opposed the deal say they may appeal their case as well.

"In my opinion, it's un-American to sell a park for commercial development. And the whole process has been handled wrong from the very beginning. There's been no community input," said Karen Cruz, president of Dundalk's Eastfield-Stanbrook Civic Association and a plaintiff in the zoning case.

Bob Staab, a former state delegate who also is a plaintiff in the case, said he believes that one way or another, opponents will stop the government center development.

"This has been going on since 2012, and they are no closer now than they were then," Staab said. "I think people are going to realize what the county is trying to do and what Vanguard is trying to do is wrong. They are trying to take away a public park."

County officials acknowledge the fight isn't over.

"The contract and any timeline are both on hold pending the resolution of the court cases," said Ellen Kobler, a spokeswoman for Kamenetz.

Many of the center's occupants have moved out, including Crandell's district office and part of the police precinct that was housed there. The building is still rented by community sports and arts groups.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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