Hayden: Stump Money to Burn?

September 22, 1991

Would you buy a burning building? Few people in their right mind would, before the liabilities and insurance considerations are sorted out. Yet this is exactly what Baltimore County Executive Roger Hayden seems to suggest when he says he wants the county to acquire a smoldering 35-acre dump site from James F. Jett, a controversial Granite Christmas tree farmer.

In case you just joined in, this is what has happened so far: A fire at Mr. Jett's property began sending putrid smoke throughout the metropolitan area in February, although it may have started much earlier. The cause of the fire is unknown, but investigators suspect arson. So far, county fire officials have spent at least $140,000 on the fire. Since the underground fire is not localized in just a few pockets, firefighting may have to continue for another year or longer.

For months, county officials have been complaining about Mr. Jett's lack of cooperation in fighting the fire. Mr. Hayden now proposes to buy out the Christmas tree farmer so the county can gain control over the dump, which has long been plagued by problems. After the fire is extinguished, the property would be converted into a park or a county nursery for trees and shrubs, according to the Hayden proposal. If Wyoming can have Yellowstone Park, surely Baltimore County merits Jett's Park, the county executive seems to be saying.

The solution Mr. Hayden proposes may be an easy one politically, but we do not think it is very savvy. Why should Mr. Jett be rewarded financially for a problem he may have caused? Why isn't the county keeping his feet close to the fire by prosecuting him, instead of helping him turn a potentially huge liability into an asset? Why hasn't the county been more aggressive in pursuing remedies to put out the massive underground fire?

There is another aspect to Mr. Hayden's puzzling proposal. For years, citizens in western Baltimore County have tried to persuade the county to buy parcels suited for parks in Relay and Catonsville. The answer from Towson: if you want parks, come up with the money yourselves. For that reason alone it is incomprehensible how the county government now can turn around and propose the use of county funds to buy a smoky dump which was never meant to be a park.

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