Baltimore County has finally reached a tentative agreement with Bethlehem Steel Corp. under which the county is to acquire 388 acres near the steelmaker's Sparrows Point plant for an industrial park and another 26 acres for Fire Department facilities.
Negotiations over the property had dragged on for three years and through two county government administrations while the giant steelmaker enjoyed more than $3 million in annual tax breaks.
The agreement was reached after a four-hour meeting with company officials Aug. 29, according to county officials, but has not yet been put into writing and signed.
The crucial stumbling block that was settled was over liability for any environmental pollution which may be discovered after the county sells land in the park for industrial uses.
Bethlehem Steel had refused to totally indemnify the county, which has refused to assume ownership without that guarantee against future liability.
The solution, according to Anthony J. Haley, acting director of the county's Economic Development Commission, came when Bethlehem finally agreed to guarantee liability protection for Baltimore County, though not for private purchasers who later buy parcels from the county.
"It looks like we've got a deal barring some quirk," Haley said.
Ted Baldwin, a spokesman for Beth Steel, issued a brief statement yesterday saying that a tentative agreement has been reached.
"We had a very successful meeting with Baltimore County and have agreed in principle," said Baldwin, reading the statement. "The agreement is currently being prepared and we will be meeting with the county in about a month."
"If you want any further details on it, I would suggest you contact the county," Baldwin said, refusing to answer any questions about the agreement.
County Executive Roger B. Hayden said he hasn't yet studied the proposal in writing, and so would have no immediate comment on the agreement.
Reasons for the three years of delay, according to various county officials involved with the negotiations, range from Bethlehem's refusal to indemnify the county to more recent misunderstandings fostered by miscommunication between the county and the company.
Bethlehem has benefited generously from tax breaks in the interim, while the county has spent about $800,000 to make plans for the land and study potential pollution problems.
That doesn't count the annual $1.8 million the county is spending to staff the Sparrows Point fire station, which Bethlehem gave to the county at the outset. The county and the state also agreed to share $10 million worth of improvements to 5.6 miles of roads and bridges on the site.
Elaborate plans by the county for $20 million worth of improvements including a new fire academy, emergency driver zTC training course and maintenance garage -- all badly needed -- are on hold. They were delayed first by the legal dispute and now because the recession has forced fiscal cutbacks.
The proposed industrial park land is on six parcels, only one of which was used in active steel production. The others were used for storage or residential worker housing.
As part of the deal, the County Council agreed in November 1987 to reduce Bethlehem's electricity tax. The company signed a three-page letter of understanding for the land in 1988, but the county never took possession of the parcels.