A debate over the fate of a wooded, hilly tract in Catonsville has forced Baltimore County officials to weigh the issue of
conservation vs. costs.
At stake is a 13-acre tract just south of Westowne Elementary School on Harlem Lane. The tract is listed as a proposed park in the county's year-old master plan, along with 39 other sites. But the question facing the County Council is whether saving the tract is worth the $1.4 million price tag that the tract's owners, Aurelia and Joseph Loveman, have been offered by a developer who wants to build 80 town houses.
The council is to vote on the issue April 15. It had been scheduled for a vote Monday night, but was taken off the agenda at the request of Councilwoman Berchie Lee Manley, R-1st, whose district includes the site.
Mrs. Manley said she wanted to see if she could transfer funds that have been allocated for other park projects in her district to complete the purchase. But she declined to say which projects would be affected.
Recreation and Parks Director Wayne Harmon said county purchases of land for parksover the last three years have averaged about $12,500 an acre.
Mr. Harmon told council members last week that to develop the property, the Southern Land Co. would have to donate six acres of the parcel to the county because of zoning codes regarding town house developments and open space.
That means the county is looking at paying $1.4 million for seven acres -- $200,000 an acre. Several council members said the cost was too high. "The cost is prohibitive, just prohibitive," said Councilman Donald Mason, D-7th, who recently toured the site along with several other council members.
Mr. Harmon said that if the Loveman tract becomes county parkland, the contour of the land will likely limit its use. "What you have here is the county paying 10 times the [average] cost, but what you're talking about getting is mainly a slope," he said. "You're not talking about ball fields and basketball courts."
But neighbors of the property say the development must be stopped to preserve the community. "We're surrounded by houses and town houses, and enough is enough," said Rebecca Killebrew of nearby Longview Drive.
"Why is it we have no parkland for these kids?" she asked.
Mrs. Killebrew said more than 1,000 residents have signed petitions and written letters asking that the site be turned into parkland because of traffic and flooding that neighbors fear would accompany the development.
Mrs. Killebrew, whose home abutting the property floods during steady rainfalls, said that because of flooding the county has had to purchase five houses at a cost of at least $400,000 over the past decade.
Andrew Rich, who also lives along Longview Drive, added that the site represents the last open space left in the community.
"Because it's the last open space, the county should see it as a long-term investment, one that would be cheap in the long run," he said.
County Executive Roger B. Hayden said he felt the property was worth purchasing. "The scarcity of the land and the proximity to a school down there makes it particularly attractive," he said.
Councilwoman Manley, whose 1st District includes the property, agreed. She argued that listing the tract as a possible park site in the master plan represented a promise to the community.
She asked the council to enact a measure reserving the property, essentially preventing it from being sold for development for 90 days. The council voted unanimously to do so Jan. 21.
The council must approve condemnation by April 25 or let the tract be sold to the devel- oper.
"The master plan gave these people the hope that this land would be purchased," Mrs. Manley said. "It's not just a matter of dollars. The dollars were known from the very beginning. It's a matter of living up to commitments."