Mayor sought bill to help HarborView

February 23, 1994|By William F. Zorzi Jr. Sun staff writer John A. Morris contributed to this article.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke quietly had legislation introduced in the Maryland General Assembly that would benefit the owners of the struggling HarborView development by providing tax breaks people who buy condominiums there.

Mr. Schmoke this month got leaders of the city's delegation in Annapolis to sponsor the bill, which would give HarborView condo buyers a sliding-scale property tax credit for the first five years of ownership -- if the measure was approved by the legislature and the City Council.

But after a frosty reception from Baltimore senators and delegates this week, Mr. Schmoke is asking to have the bill withdrawn.

"If we can help HarborView . . . I'd like to do it, because filling the building is very beneficial to the city," Mr. Schmoke said yesterday. Given legislative opposition, however, he said he would instead support a broader, citywide bill designed to draw more middle-class buyers to Baltimore.

Under the original legislation, anyone who bought a condo at HarborView by Oct. 31, 1995, and lived in it would pay 50 percent of the property tax the first year, 60 percent the second year, 70 percent the third year, 80 percent the fourth year and 90 percent in the fifth.

Such a tax break could provide a huge savings to buyers, given the cost of HarborView's units -- $161,000 to $1.7 million -- and the city's tax rate of $5.90 per $100 of assessed value.

Though the bill does not specifically mention HarborView, it is so narrowly drawn that it could apply only to that development.

On the surface, the area affected by the legislation covers both sides of the Inner Harbor shoreline from Fells Point to HarborView Drive, the development's main road, on the site of the old Bethlehem Steel Corp. shipyard off Key Highway.

But the language of the bill specifically refers to properties in that area that were completed between Nov. 1, 1992, and Nov. 1, 1993.

HarborView's first residential tower opened Sept. 9, 1993.

"The crime rate's up in Baltimore City -- they're trying to perpetrate a holdup without the use of a gun," said Sen. George W. Della Jr., a South Baltimore Democrat.

Mr. Schmoke acknowledged that HarborView developer Richard A. Swirnow had indicated in the past that he would like tax credits for his buyers but that Mr. Swirnow had not made such a request recently.

This year's bill, the mayor said, was an outgrowth of a mayoral task force's recommendations last year for providing tax incentives for new homebuyers in the city, particularly in the Inner Harbor.

Mr. Swirnow and Thomas N. Marudas, vice president of HarborView Properties Development Co. and a member of the task force, said yesterday that they did not know the bill had been introduced. And both said they did not ask Mr. Schmoke to sponsor this specific legislation.

But Mr. Marudas added: "I'm sure from time to time, in general conversation, the mayor got the impression that we were not pleased at the way things are going."

Mr. Swirnow said HarborView's 248-unit residential tower -- the first of six planned for the site -- was only about a third full.

"Sales aren't anywhere near where they ought to be," Mr. Marudas said.

Mr. Schmoke said one legislator raised a question about the appearance of a possible conflict of interest between HarborView's Mr. Marudas and his brother, Peter N. Marudas, the mayor's legislative liaison.

The mayor quickly dismissed that notion, saying: "Peter has never talked to me about this."

Sen. John A. Pica Jr. and Del. Frank D. Boston Jr., chairmen of the city Senate and House delegations, respectively, introduced the companion bills Feb. 4.

It was not until Monday that the legislators appeared to grasp the ramifications of the bill. Asked by a reporter Monday what he thought the bill would do, Mr. Pica said: "I have no idea. This is the first time I've looked at it."

Reading on, he said: "I don't know why they're bothering to mention the other side of the harbor."

This is not the first time legislation has been introduced in which the language appears to be general but in fact would benefit a particular person or development. Such a bill is known as "a red-headed Eskimo" in legislative parlance.

Though the city has given developers tax breaks in the past, this legislation is the first that would give homebuyers the benefit of this kind of tax credit.

HarborView, which is planned as a 1,590-unit, $600 million project at completion, is by far the largest single investment in waterfront housing ever to open in Baltimore.

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