A Three-Way Race With High Stakes

COMMENT

May 15, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

The scramble to annex some 1,000 acres of undeveloped open space along the Upper Chesapeake shoreline south of the Havre de Grace city limits has turned into a three-way (but hopefully not a three-legged) race.

The future use of that crucial swath of open land, one of the few remaining undeveloped access points to the Chesapeake Bay in Harford County, may well depend on who eventually gains title to these private parcels now on the market.

Residential, industrial, active recreation and passive open space are among the divergent uses put forward by three potential buyers: Harford County, the city of Havre de Grace and the non-profit Harford Land Trust.

The contested greenlands comprise three properties: the Johns Hopkins University's Swan Harbor Farm (the former Kenney farm), the Tydings estate, and Belle Vue Farm (the old Davis spread).

The Hopkins property, willed to the university nearly a decade ago, has loomed most prominent in private negotiations and public discussions. There has been talk of the county acquiring the land for years.

Several years ago, Hopkins appeared intent on getting the entire agricultural acreage rezoned for residential development. The county denied rezoning, but didn't have the money to buy the property itself and the idea was quietly dropped.

Recently, Hopkins placed a $4.3 million price tag on the 522-acre parcel during exploratory talks with interested parties. That has helped to focus public attention on the subject.

The land was given to Johns Hopkins with the stipulation that its value be "maximized," which would suggest high-intensity development (consistent with zoning/land use rules.) About 60 acres of the tract are already zoned for industrial use.

At this point, however, Hopkins officials seem to be talking only with non-profit buyers.

But that doesn't necessarily mean less development. Havre de Grace has long viewed the estate as key to its economic growth. The city wants to join the farm's industrial acreage to the adjacent Chesapeake Industrial Park. City officials are also interested in plans to build townhouses, construct athletic fields and a golf course on the remainder.

Havre de Grace, under the leadership of Mayor Gunther Hirsch, hopes to annex the property, rezone the land to maximize the benefit to Johns Hopkins and reap the development benefits for the city.

The city would not need Harford County's approval for annexation. But the county could delay rezoning of the farm land for five years, adversely affecting the economic gain of the current owner. More significantly, perhaps, Harford could deny water and sewer expansion to Havre de Grace if the city effected a "hostile" annexation.

County Council President Jeffrey Wilson issued such a warning a few weeks ago, although Aberdeen's plan to annex outside the defined "development envelope" was his main objection. Mr. Wilson withdrew his threat, after assurances that differences could be better resolved through negotiation than through governmental saber-rattling.

Harford's plan for the shoreline properties is decidedly different, mostly passive recreation along with limited public access to the Susquehanna Flats for a park and boat launch. The emphasis would be on open space, not ballfields or houses.

(Even the county's idea of boat launches on the coastline represents a compromise. If the Army hadn't swallowed up the lion's share of Harford's bayshore years ago, the county's need for public water recreation access would not be so great.)

The county is actively discussing purchase of the lands, including 365 acres of the Davis farm and a 150-acre portion of the Tydings property. As for the Hopkins tract, the county argues that its value (without rezoning) is much less than the current asking price. Meanwhile, Havre de Grace has yet to include the potential annexation in its updated comprehensive land use plan, which won't be completed for months. Mayor Hirsch pledged to inform the county of the city's intentions for the land (with informal council approval) by the end of this month.

The Harford Land Trust, buoyed by its success in raising money to save Kilgore Falls on Falling Branch for public use, hopes to play a similar role in preserving these properties.

The non-profit trust hopes to negotiate a combination of preservation easements through county or state programs and some direct land purchases that would maximize protection of the land. Protecting the almost one mile of shoreline along the Davis property is a priority.

Compromise and cooperation on use of this valuable land is likely. The county doesn't have the money to buy it all, even with state Open Space funds and farmland preservation revenues. The land trust can't persuade the owners to put it all into easements. The city surely loses if it annexes property in open defiance of Harford's land-use plan.

That chunk of the Hopkins parcel already zoned for industrial development might be the place to begin working out an accord to benefit all residents of the county.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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