Ruppersberger rewrites policy on 99-year leases County to maintain control of buildings

February 19, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore County closed the old Lansdowne library in 1993, nothing seemed more logical than turning over the empty building to a local community group on a $1 per year, 99-year lease.

But that deal by former Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden has come back to trouble his successor, C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who has decided not to grant any more long-term leases to local nonprofit organizations.

The county is trying to calculate how many of these leases for surplus buildings county executives have parceled out over the years.

Some of the leases have fared better than others.

The arrangement has worked well in Edgemere, where Baptist Christian School uses the old Fort Howard Elementary building. Calvary Baptist Church in Dundalk has handled all utility and maintenance costs on the 1932 building over the past decade, the Rev. Jack Caldwell said.

But in East Towson, a historic black community, feelings are bruised over administration efforts to renegotiate a shorter lease for the segregation-era Carver school building at Lennox and Jefferson avenues.

And last month, Ruppersberger revoked the Southwest Leadership Team's lease on the federally renovated, half-empty former Lansdowne library so he can move day care children there despite the team's objections.

That action has created bitter feelings in a community with a history of neglect by county politicians.

"Dutch Ruppersberger will never see public office again if we have anything to do with it," said Catherine Owings, the Southwest Leadership Team's chairwoman and former library building manager. "They have dismissed us as if we don't even exist," she said, making team members "look like a bunch of fools."

Yet despite the anger of Lansdowne activists about what they see as shabby treatment, even Owings agrees that Ruppersberger's new policy makes better sense.

Instead of long leases that leave ill-equipped community groups responsible for running expensive public buildings, the county will keep control of the structures and lease space to local groups.

"It's a better way," Owings agreed. "Then we wouldn't have to go out looking for tenants" or scramble for operating costs, she said.

Top administration officials agree.

Ruppersberger said his message to community groups is, "Let us do what we do best, and you do what you do best." The county has professional building managers, while the groups' expertise is running neighborhood programs.

Michael H. Davis, Ruppersberger's spokesman, called the previous policy "a sham lease policy. We end up paying for utilities and maintenance, and isn't it a county building still? It doesn't make economic sense."

Davis, County Administrative Officer Merreen E. Kelly and County Attorney Virginia W. Barnhart say they discussed the change for several months -- and not only because of the Lansdowne dispute.

Kelly said each new proposal will be weighed on its merits before $1-a-year-leases are offered. "We are not going to be giving our property away for [long-term] leases," he said.

The problem is partly political, because the buildings often were given to groups that traditionally have been left out of government planning and have nurtured hurt feelings and low expectations for decades. Attempts to change their leases prompt resentment.

The Carver building in East Towson -- a two-story cinder-block segregation-era schoolhouse leased for 99 years to the East Towson Coalition -- is the subject of a gentle tug of war.

A more-than $600,000 federally funded renovation of the building is nearing completion. The county wants to shorten the lease, causing hurt feelings in the historic black community, which has felt neglected and abused by county officials for years.

"I didn't like the way they approached us," said Norman Ringgold, director of the coalition and a 1945 graduate of the school. But he said his main interest is to get the building reopened and a planned first-floor day care center operating. "I don't care if the lease is for 25 years or 99 years," he said.

The Lansdowne situation is more complicated.

The struggling blue-collar community, physically isolated in the county's far southwest corner between the Baltimore Beltway, Baltimore-Washington Parkway and the Harbor Tunnel Thruway, has almost no public buildings aside from schools.

That has posed a puzzle for authorities trying to find space for day care students at St. Clement's Church and school, where first-graders are being moved to the day care center's first-floor space to satisfy the county's fire code.

Lansdowne activists want money to build a day care annex next to the school to continue use of the school gym and library. But the county administration sees moving them to empty space in the former Lansdowne library as the quickest, easiest solution.

Some Lansdowne residents feel that, compared with wealthier county areas, they get little respect.

By contrast, the Fort Howard school experiment appears a solid success.

Other than county replacement of some broken outside windows, the church has done all the renovations and repairs since the mid-1980s. "It's a good working relationship," Caldwell says.

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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