City denies Wagner's Point request Schmoke refuses plan to relocate residents out of industrial area

June 20, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Deflecting a plea from one of Baltimore's tiniest neighborhoods, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has turned down -- for now -- a request to relocate residents of a south city section scarred by heavy industry and ravaged by cancer.

A coalition representing the 270 people who live in Wagner's Point had asked the city last month to contribute to a proposed $15.1 million buyout, including $115,000 for each homeowner. New industrial development around their two-block & neighborhood -- 98 homes, a playground and Jerry & Jethrow's bar -- has created unacceptable pollution and traffic, residents said. And the city, they charged, has no effective plan to evacuate people in the event of a major chemical accident.

The residents' proposal expressed hope that Schmoke would lead the way in finding money from the city, state, the federal empowerment zone and local chemical companies to fund the buyout. But Schmoke's reply, in a one-page, three-paragraph letter signed by city solicitor Otho M. Thompson, offered little promise that the mayor would lobby personally for the neighborhood.

"We advise that the City is not presently prepared to acquire these properties as outlined in your proposal," wrote Thompson. The letter, dated yesterday, did not comment on the validity of the neighborhood's concerns about air pollution and higher than normal rates for three types of cancer -- lung cancer, leukemia and lymphoma.

The letter was hand-delivered late yesterday afternoon to the quiet Leo Street rowhouse of Rose Hindla, president of the neighborhood association that developed the buyout proposal.

Angry residents, many of whom have pasted signs to their front windows reading, "WE WANT OUT," spent the afternoon passing the missive from door to door. Hindla, whose husband read her the letter while she was at work in neighboring South Baltimore, said she might lead a protest in front of City Hall next week.

Several neighborhood residents wondered aloud why the city, which relocated 300 families out of nearby Fairfield Homes in 1989, is refusing to act now.

"It's very disappointing," said Betty Lefkowitz, 63, whose next door neighbor died of liver cancer earlier this year.

"I can't believe the city won't help. They haven't heard the last of us."

But city officials -- and a few of the neighborhood's elected representatives -- pointed out that the letter left the door open to future buyout proposals.

Thompson suggested in the letter that the federal empowerment zone could be one source of funds for a buyout in the future.

"There may be an opportunity in the future," Thompson said in a telephone interview yesterday. "But they asked for more than we can pay."

He said that the city, as a matter of policy and law, could not pay more than the market value of the homes.

City records show that between 1993 and 1997, no house in Wagner's Point sold for more than $30,000.

Schmoke, who was at a meeting of Yale University trustees in Connecticut, said in a statement: "I discussed these issues with the city solicitor, and I agree with his conclusions."

The mayor suggested that residents interested in relocating immediately contact the city's Department of Housing and Community Development to learn more about existing programs promote home ownership.

State Sen. George W. Della Jr., a supporter of a buyout, was undeterred by that response.

"I believe this is a beginning, not an end," he said. "I know of no other place in the entire state of Maryland where the danger to residents is like that in Wagner's Point. The logic of a buyout is so compelling that I think it will happen. And it's the right thing to do."

In the meantime, Rena Steinzor, the director of the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic, which represents the neighborhood, pledged to "fight on." The coalition has already filed notice of its intention to sue seven large chemical companies in their neighborhood, and residents have hinted at further legal action if they are not relocated.

At a public hearing in Curtis Bay this week, Hindla firmly clutched a book: Jonathan Harr's "A Civil Action," an account of a neighborhood's environmental lawsuit in Massachusetts. That case was settled out of court.

Pub Date: 6/20/98

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