Land sale outrages Balto. Co. Council 'I got it wrong,' admits architect of deal that skirted oversight

August 29, 1996|By Larry Carson and Ronnie Greene | Larry Carson and Ronnie Greene,SUN STAFF

A scruffy vacant lot in Lansdowne bought with public money -- for nearly three times the lowest appraisal -- has outraged Baltimore County's council members, who want hard answers about the $200,000 deal.

In their rush to turn the lot into a park, local officials violated the county's own rules this year by skirting County Council oversight through an unusual arrangement with a nonprofit group and the property owners.

"It's horribly embarrassing for the county," said Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county Republican and former Carroll County prosecutor.

Yesterday, as details of the project came to light -- and county officials scrambled to close loopholes that let the deal slip through -- those involved pointed fingers directly at themselves.

"It was a mistake," said P. David Fields, director of the county's Community Conservation Department. "My enthusiasm was to find ways to get it done. And I got it wrong."

Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat who represents the Lansdowne area, said he approves of the project itself -- but said he never knew the appraised prices were lower than the purchase price.

"It absolutely blew me away," Moxley said. "I was under the impression that if we were buying property they were dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's."

Most council members only learned of the questionable deal Tuesday, in a closed-door session with County Attorney Virginia W. Barnhart.

She told the council that Ruppersberger administration officials helped arrange the deal with the private, nonprofit Southwest Leadership Team community group.

Several members were outraged to learn that they must now vote to accept a "gift" of the 3.5-acre proposed park at Baltimore and Fifth avenues, which was paid for with $200,000 in federal money filtered through the county's Community Conservation program.

Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, said he believes that county workers eager to make the project work acted rashly -- but not criminally.

Barnhart agreed, saying, "People make mistakes. A mistake has been recognized. And a mistake will be rectified."

But she added that the approach violated the county charter, which requires County Council approval of such transactions.

The land purchase is part of a complicated deal designed to provide a new park and 64 new apartments for the elderly in Lansdowne.

Under the arrangement, the county agreed to lease a parcel in the 4200 block of Hollins Ferry Road to Associated Catholic Charities for $1 a year; that land would house the apartments.

The land, although designated for a park, wasn't suited for that use because of debris dumped there during construction of the Baltimore Beltway in the 1960s. But since the Hollins Ferry parcel was bought with money from a state parks program, the county had to provide a replacement site for a park.

The county set its sights on the similarly sized parcel at Baltimore and Fifth avenues, and agreed to provide up to $225,000 in federal funds for the purchase.

In 1995, the county commissioned three appraisals of the potential park site. One set the market value at $73,000. Another at $94,150. And a third at $197,450.

But county officials discounted the highest appraisal, calling it flawed because it didn't consider the impact of streams and wetlands on the land's value.

With the appraisals in hand, the county went to the property owners to talk about a sale.

Gerald W. and Dennis L. Harting, whose family owned the property since the 1930s, had a price in mind: $200,000. But that was higher than the county's Bureau of Land Acquisitions wanted to pay.

"We were looking at the low appraisal," said Shirley M. Murphy, chief of the county's land bureau. "We had no justification to go forward with the $200,000."

That's when Fields decided to take a different route, directing more than $200,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant money to the nonprofit Southwest Leadership Team to buy the parkland.

"I thought it was important enough to pay that price," Fields said.

Fields went to County Administrative Officer Merreen E. Kelly with the idea.

"I told David to go the grant direction," Kelly said yesterday. "If we went that route, we would not be bound by appraisals. And we could get the job done.

"And that was our mistake."

The nonprofit group paid the Hartings' $200,000 asking price. Money changed hands in January. The land was then to be given to the county for development as a park.

Gerald Harting said his property was worth the price. "We could have gotten more for that property, because they could have built seven or eight homes. And we just felt it would be better if the county got it and made a park out of it."

But a few weeks ago, the project hit a snag when it landed on the county attorney's desk in preparation for council approval.

Kamenetz said the council will introduce a bill Tuesday night imposing new restrictions on the grant process and requiring written notification to the council of all purchases.

But administration officials will beat them to the punch, said Michael H. Davis, spokesman for County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III.

Davis said Ruppersberger will sign an executive order Tuesday implementing the procedures in the proposed council bill. They include establishing a grants administrator and a committee of top administration officials to review all grants.

But several other council members aren't ready to accept the administration's explanation.

McIntire was upset that the council chairman knew about the problem for several weeks, but other council members were just presented with the information Tuesday.

"I don't know if there was any wrongdoing," McIntire said. "It shouldn't happen again."

Added Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican, "The question is: Was there a deliberate attempt to circumvent the procurement law?"

Pub Date: 8/29/96

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