Protecting Harford taxpayers [Editorial]

The Aegis

The situation with the Emily Baylass Graham property in Bel Air South has been complicated, to say the least.

That last great undeveloped tract in the Route 24/924 between Bel Air and Interstate 95 – assuming we don’t count the ex-Plumtree Walmart site — has been the subject of many legal machinations since Mrs. Graham’s death at age 96 in 2007. All have been done with good intentions, we believe, but good intentions don’t necessarily ensure a welcome final result.

The latest twist with the 100-acre tract along Wheel Road between Route 924 and Tollgate Parkway concerns the 41 acres which is supposed to become the home of the Maryland Center for the Arts.

Representatives of the Graham Estate and Center for the Arts have asked the county government to relinquish its ownership of the property and deed it back to the Graham Estate trustees. The Harford County Council has signed off on the transaction, as has the county administration, and all that awaits is a rubber stamp from the Board of Estimates.

Supposedly, this transfer will better enable the Center for the Arts folks to raise funds, secure financing or both in order to get this project moving forward. As the site has been intended for the arts center all along, the county government really doesn’t have a stake in the property, or does it?

Unfortunately, county taxpayers have a big stake in this property, but it’s not being played that way by our elected officials, most of whom weren’t involved in the Graham property deal to begin with, which dates back to the administration of the last county executive.

In a nutshell, the Graham trustees agreed to “give” all 110 acres to the county for use as a park and as a cultural arts center, which is how Mrs. Graham’s wishes for the property were interpreted by the trustees of her estate.

But there was another interest in the property, the Friends Meeting of Baltimore, which was looking for a permanent home for its Harford Friends School and also was mentioned by Mrs. Graham in her will.

To further its aims to secure the property for a park — and the arts center – the county gave 68 acres it owned off of Route 1 north of Bel Air to the Friends. That land, we like to remind folks, cost Harford County taxpayers $1.8 million, maybe not as much as it would have cost to buy the Graham property — probably one-tenth as much — but still real cash money.

The county still plans to build the park on the nearly 70 acres of the Graham property between Routes 24 and 924. In accordance with the late owner’s wishes, it will be a passive, nature type park, plans for which were unveiled about a year ago.

Since the current administration isn’t making any major funding contributions to the arts center project, which is in the hands of a private non-profit, what does the county have to lose from giving up the 41 acres between Route 24 and Tollgate? More than we think is worth the risk, frankly.

What if the arts center project craters for lack of financial backing?

If that were to happen, land that might have been somewhat preserved will not become a cultural center, but more likely another gaggle of apartments or townhouses or condos.

Legally speaking, that might happen regardless of whose name is on the deed, but at this juncture, we’d feel a lot better if the county retained control of this property until the public can receive reasonable assurances there’s an alternative scenario in place if the Center for the Arts doesn’t happen, one that doesn’t involve houses on the 41 acres.

We’re not against the Center for the Arts, but we also have long been on record that it should be funded privately, not by county taxpayers. But we also want it recognized that taxpayers already have a stake in the property, and giving up ownership control at this juncture is irresponsible and should not be done on this or that lawyer’s say-so.

Frankly, we suspect what was probably a bad deal to begin with is about to get a lot worse.

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