Wagner's Pt. buyout plan is revived In reversal, Schmoke tells residents city might purchase homes

'Bank' land for sewer plant

Details of acquisition raise questions in neighborhood

July 08, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke walked around tiny, cancer-ridden Wagner's Point last night and made an offer he had all but ruled out last month: to have the city negotiate to buy the neighborhood's 98 homes.

Standing in the neighborhood's playground before a skeptical crowd that included more than three-quarters of the 270 residents, Schmoke indicated that a city sewage treatment plant -- long considered a foul-smelling curse in Wagner's Point -- could be a blessing for residents who want to move.

The plant, which processes 70 million gallons of sewage a day, will need to be enlarged in the years ahead, and the blocks where residents' houses now sit are a natural site for expansion.

"The interests of this neighborhood coincide with the interest of the city," said Schmoke, to a smattering of applause.

"I am suggesting that the city could make offers to acquire all the property that is here in Wagner's Point. We agree in principle with you on the need to do something."

Schmoke's offer, combined with a public commitment last night from Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, seemed to transform the buyout from a plea to a likelihood.

Ever since the death of community leader Jeanette Skrzecz from cancer in April, residents have insisted that a relocation was needed to save them from dangerous chemicals in the air and a neighborhood cancer rate that exceeds the national average.

After brief speeches to residents, Schmoke and Gilchrest offered to form a working group that would begin immediate negotiations with residents on a process for buying the homes -- an offer that residents accepted.

The first negotiating session could come next Wednesday.

But despite that agreement, the details of the mayor's plan got a decidedly mixed reception from some neighborhood leaders, who noted that it fell far short of their spring proposal for a comprehensive buyout.

That proposal would have guaranteed at least $115,000 for every homeowner and $30,000 for renters -- figures that city officials have termed "ridiculous."

Rose Hindla, president of the Fairfield/Wagner's Point Neighborhood Coalition, said flatly, "It's not acceptable." But her sister-in-law, Debbie Hindla, called it "an important first step."

Adrienne Law worried that Schmoke's desire to negotiate with individual homeowners would break up the coalition that offered the proposal.

Over the past week, neighborhood leaders -- at Schmoke's request -- conducted a written survey to determine who wanted to move. Only six families -- four homeowners and two renters -- expressed a reluctance to relocate.

'Wants to negotiate as one'

"The neighborhood wants to negotiate as one," said Law, who has lived on Leo Street for 15 years. "I think the mayor is trying to divide and conquer us. I don't believe that's going to fly."

Instead, the mayor said that Baltimore would be willing to appraise all the houses and make an offer based on their fair market value.

Money for the purchases would come not from the city's general funds but from water and sewage fees, as well as any bonds sold by Baltimore to finance sewage plant expansion, officials said.

Residents would be welcome to get their own appraisals, the mayor said. If the city's offers differed from residents' figures, the city would be willing to submit the competing bids to an arbitrator, he said. If residents agree in negotiations, he said, the whole process of land acquisition could be complete within eight months.

"The need for the land is not right now," the mayor said. "But we could bank the land now for future use. I came tonight to begin the process of finding a solution."

Any money above the value determined would have to come from federal or other sources, not the city, Schmoke said.

Possibility of federal money

And Gilchrest, the 1st District Republican who took a tour of the neighborhood last night, patted the mayor on his shoulder and said the federal government might be able to fill the gap.

Gilchrest, whose district includes Wagner's Point, told residents that he would work to secure money from the $100 million federal empowerment zone, or from community development block grants issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"What this would pay is the value of the houses if they weren't in the chemical industry's back yard," he said.

Residents and local politicians said Schmoke's offer represented reversal of sorts. Last month, Schmoke had the city solicitor send a curt, three-paragraph letter, rejecting the buyout proposal.

The only alternatives he offered were the federal empowerment zone and the city's Home Ownership Institute, which provides help with deposits and closing costs.

But Schmoke said that Director of Public Works George G. Balog had reminded him of an additional option in recent days.

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