The county government has razed a house which a non-profit group says had been promised to it for possible use as a homeless shelter.
The county is now building a transfer station for trash recyclables on the site, near the county's central landfill in Street. County government administrators say they were unaware the group had been promised the house and nearby land for a new shelter.
The administrators said last week after a reporter's inquiries that they have scheduled a meeting with group leaders to discuss the mistake and will attempt to find the group a new building or site for a shelter.
Robert N. Hockaday Jr., government and community relations director for Harford County, said he has planned a meeting with the group, ECHCO Inc. (Ecumenical Community of Harford County Inc.) officials in early June to discuss the matter.
"ECHCO's concern is space for future expansion, and I'm sure we can find additional land for them," Hockaday said.
ECHCO leaders said they learned the county planned to use the site for the transfer station after volunteer fire departments burned the house down for training on Palm Sunday.
Officials of ECHCO, a non-profit group that started a transitional shelter last year for woman and their children in Street, said they thought had an agreement with Harford County to use the house and land adjoining the current shelter to expand. The current shelter, named ECHCO House, is adjacent to Scarboro Landfill.
Apparently the group did have an agreement with the county for the house and land -- but with the administration of former County Executive Habern W. Freeman, now a state senator.
The agreement, though, was never put into writing, according to county administrators who said they searched their files this week.
Freeman said no agreement was ever put in writing because he was leaving office as ECHCO was getting off the ground.
"Not only had I given them the OK to use that land for additional shelters or other services, but I had encouraged them," said Freeman.
The only written agreement ECHCO has with the county is the lease, for a nominal fee, ECHCO House and the 3.35 acres around it.
ECHCO officials say they thought additional land, perhaps as much as 30 to 40 acres, was available for their use once they chose to expand the shelter operations.
ECHCO Inc. is comprised of county religious leaders, Associated Catholic Charities and local businesses.
The Rev. Charles W. Lightner, ECHCO's president and pastor of Bel Air United Methodist Church, said last week, "We were at the site with representatives of [Freeman's] administration, and they told us that everything on this side [between Scarboro Road and the landfill] of the landfill was ours to work with, and no one ever told us otherwise."
The Rev. Francis X. Callahan, pastor of St. Margaret's Catholic Church in Bel Air, said he was also at those meetings.
"We are not ones to cry over spilt milk. I don't think the loss of the land is a setback. We may not be able to build as much as had thought, but our work will go on," said Callahan, ECHCO's president last year.
He said ECHCO wants to put two trailers near ECHCO House, for use as interim emergency shelter. ECHCO House opened last August. The house is operated by Associated Catholic Charities.
County administrators said they decided to raze the house on the transfer station site when they began putting in place elements of the voluntary recycling program which starts June 1.
The program will include sending recyclables to a transfer station to be sorted and sent to recycling factories. Since a station next to the county's central landfill would be convenient, the house site was deemed appropriate, said county officials.
ECHCO officials say they were never formally notified that the house would be razed.
The Rev. Tom Bonderenko, who administers shelter programs for Associated Catholic Charities, said he thought ECHCO was going to be allowed to renovate the house.
"At first we were told that the house's foundation was bad but that it could be repaired. Then we heard sort of through the grapevine that the house would have to be torn down, and then before we knew it, it was gone, and something else was going up there," he said.
Larry W. Klimovitz, county director of administration, said the house was in such bad shape it could not be renovated.
"I went in there and put my foot through the floor three times," he said. The fact that the house could not be salvaged should not have been a surprise to ECHCO, he said.
George F. Harrison Jr., spokesman for County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, said she has decided to appoint a liaison to stay informed about the "overall picture" between ECHCO and county government.
Harrison says faulty assumptions were made on both sides.
"They understood one thing, and we understood another," he said.
Lightner, ECHCO's president, said, "It is going to take all of us working together to build the shelter, and it will serve none of us to be critical of the others."
He gave the current administration high marks for its assistance to ECHCO House.
"We just don't know how much impact the transfer station and the loss of that land is going to have. We know that there is a need for additional shelters," he said.
Expanding shelter operations near ECHCO House makes sense, noted Bonderenko of Associated Catholic Charities.
"It's a lot cheaper for one thing. The same three-person staff that is now looking after eight people at ECHCO House could look after 16."