Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen has long eyed a little-used section of Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point steel yard as a place to cultivate new industrial jobs to replace some of the thousands that have been lost during the past decade.
In an effort to get moving on the project and acquire the property, the county two years ago reduced the steel manufacturer's utility taxes by a total of $2.8 million in exchange for 388 acres of the Sparrows Point site.
But the land still hasn't been turned over to the county.
And Rasmussen's vision -- a new business park re-creating thousands of well-paying manufacturing jobs -- remains unfulfilled and may be unrealistic, a consultant says.
Despite concerns over pollution in the land, county officials have already spent more than $790,000 for planned improvements to the property it doesn't own. In all, Baltimore County could end up spending $28.9 million for repairs and improvements for land valued at $7.25 million by the state.
Richard Story, head of the county's economic-development office, claims the county is "closing in on an agreement" to get the land, but won't say how soon that might be.
The negotiations involve any number of environmental questions over the six separate parcels of land, Story said. The main point to resolve is who will assume responsibility for pollution on the sites.
Without someone taking responsibility for the land against future lawsuits -- say by an employee who developed cancer after working there -- the property is useless, said L. Clinton Hoch, a New York consultant who specializes in locating industrial land for development, but who isn't involved in the county's negotiations on Sparrows Point.
The full extent of pollution on the site is known only to a handful of county and Bethlehem Steel officials, who refuse to release three environmental studies the county paid for.
"They're not public documents, not yet," said Story. Because the reports involve negotiations for a land sale, he said, the county considers them privileged information.
The details are also being kept from an eight-member citizen committee that Rasmussen appointed to provide community input on the business park project.
"It's been about a year since we had a meeting," said Pearl Gintling, an Edgemere resident on the advisory committee. "They tell us that they're in negotiations and that's all they have to tell us."
VOLZ "STILL OPTIMISTIC"
The county councilman who represents the area, Dale T. Volz, said he's disappointed the county didn't get the land earlier, but he's aware of the difficulties.
"I'm still optimistic," said Volz, D-7th. "It does create the opportunity to provide many, many jobs."
But Councilman Norman W. Lauenstein, D-5th, who chaired the council in 1987 when the tax breaks were granted, expressed surprise that the county has spent thousands on improvements to land it doesn't own.
"That bothers me," Lauenstein said. "I thought it was accomplished by now."
Lauenstein also was angered that apparently unresolved environmental questions about the land haven't been brought to the council's attention.
"We were assured that the property was clean, and the part that wasn't was being cleaned up," he said. "I'm going to look into this."
County Attorney Arnold Jablon said the council would review any preliminary final agreement.
Two years ago, the Rasmussen administration presented the first environmental report to the council. A scientist, Frank W. Pine, then reported that the six parcels were "relatively clean, cleaner than we expected."
Pollution was limited to a 4,000-square-foot contractors' staging area, where gasoline and other chemicals had been spilled, Pine reported. At the time, officials said Beth Steel promised to clean up the land.
Although Story was reluctant to put a dollar figure on how much the land might be worth after the improvements, he said the "$100,000 an acre" range is realistic.
But the primary justification for promoting the Sparrows Point Industrial Park is jobs and an economic shot in the arm for the Dundalk area, which lost 18,500 mostly manufacturing jobs from 1980 to 1985.
"And the fact is we fully expect to recover all the investment we make there," Story said.
But it has been 2 3/4 years since the county and Bethlehem Steel signed a memorandum of understanding for the transfer of the land and the six parcels, ranging in size from 22 to 97 acres, still belong to the steel company.
BENEFITS TO BETH STEEL
The steelmaker stands to avoid paying $3.3 million more in utility taxes this fiscal year. Every industrial company in the county pays a 7.5 percent tax on its electric bill, and Bethlehem Steel's total is by far the largest.
The company has also benefited in other ways from the land swap that hasn't yet happened.