Wagner's Point thrown a curve Day after buyout talks, Schmoke supports eminent domain

July 17, 1998|By Joe Mathews and Gerard Shields | Joe Mathews and Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Throwing an obstacle in the way of fledgling negotiations to relocate a south Baltimore neighborhood, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday that he will move to condemn all 98 homes in Wagner's Point by eminent domain to make room for expansion of a sewage treatment plant.

The mayor's announcement, at a morning news conference, drew condemnations of a different sort from residents of the heavily industrial, cancer-riddled neighborhood. The vast majority of the 270 residents have petitioned the government to buy their homes so they can escape pollution.

Local leaders said they were particularly disappointed because Schmoke's comments came only 12 hours after a residents coalition met with city, state and federal officials in the first negotiation session on the proposed buyout.

The coalition issued a statement yesterday calling on the mayor to withdraw his support for condemnation. Last night, Schmoke spokesman Clinton R. Coleman said that eminent domain proceedings do not have to begin immediately, but the process takes eight months and the mayor would like to get started. Eminent domain, city officials said, is necessary if residents want the city to participate in a buyout.

The mayor did not attend the two-hour negotiations Wednesday night and, according to city government sources, was not briefed on the session before his news conference. During the negotiations at the Fairfield firehouse, city officials said eminent domain would be a "last resort" if some residents refused to leave. Expansion of the Patapsco sewage treatment plant would prohibit any residents from remaining, they said.

Participants, who agreed to negotiate again Aug. 10, described the meeting as "positive" and "constructive."

"I feel as though the mayor has stabbed us in the back," said Rose Hindla, a coalition leader.

Said state Sen. George W. Della Jr., who participated in the session: "You only use condemnation in a situation of last resort, when negotiations fall through. I feel like I wasted my time [Wednesday] night."

Schmoke said yesterday that his administration would offer an eminent domain bill to the City Council this fall. Under eminent domain, the city would pay only fair market value -- a figure that locals say has been depressed by decades of unchecked industrial development. Any additional money for a buyout would have to come from state and federal officials, Schmoke has said.

'It's all or nothing'

City officials said that, if anything, eminent domain would be a boon to the negotiations, because it would prevent the handful of residents who oppose relocation from holding up a buyout. Even if a settlement is reached, Schmoke said, the city will have to go through the formal process -- prescribed in the laws on eminent domain -- of appraising each property and making a buyout offer to each homeowner.

"I don't think that one [method] is more preferable than the other," Schmoke said. "For our purposes, it's all or nothing."

But for the neighborhood, the mayor's announcement undermined a key plank of Wagner's Point's written proposal for a buyout: that anyone who doesn't want to sell can choose to stay.

For the handful who don't want to leave, Schmoke's comments confirmed their worst fears about what could result from the neighborhood's months-long push for a buyout -- that the city would respond by forcing everyone out.

Trying to win leverage

Several of the buyout's supporters accused Schmoke yesterday trying to win leverage in negotiations by dividing the neighborhood against itself. If that was his intention, they said, he accomplished just that, as arguments broke out on front stoops all afternoon.

"It's going to be a riot down here," said Jim Smith, 33.

Buyout opponents claimed that they had been the target of caustic comments and, in one case, a shoving match.

But they were unbowed. Lori Stump, who runs Jerry & Jethrow's bar, said she will never move. Judy Vance is inclined to stay, despite a recent bout with cancer. Billie Jo Vance, a renter on Leo Street, said she would need "at least $55,000" to change her mind about staying.

"If they come down here and try to tear down our homes," said Betty Thomas, who lives at 3806 Leo St., "I'll put my body in front of the wrecking ball."

Staci Arrington, 24, a lifelong resident, said: "I would rather see my kids get cancer when they're 50 than have us move into the projects or into Curtis Bay and take a chance of them getting shot."

'Can't relocate the pigeons'

Harvey Smith complained that condemnation would provide no compensation for the WP Fliers, his team of 130 pedigree racing pigeons. The pigeons, which he says are worth $500 each, are trained to return to their cage in Wagner's Point, and retraining them all would be nearly impossible. "I can't relocate the pigeons," Smith said.

City officials say they've been told that at least 21 households want to stay. But a quick perusal of a petition listing buyout opponents raises doubts.

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