Land deal irks Arundel officials

7 acres were bought for $1 million from contributor to Gary

April 29, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County is looking to sell 7 acres of debris-strewn Maryland City land that it bought for $1 million in a hurried transaction six months ago during the final days of County Executive John G. Gary's administration.

The land deal, which county officials now say violated long-practiced procedures for acquiring property, involved a parcel owned by a prominent developer who contributed several thousand dollars to Gary's failed bid for re-election, campaign records show.

In October, shortly before the purchase was finalized, Gary held a news conference hailing it as the future site of a police substation and recreational fields to serve the fast-growing region around Maryland City. In an interview this week, Gary maintained that the land is ideal for that use.

"The whole thing may have looked rushed, but that was because we wanted to get the deal done before I left office," said Gary, a Republican. "I had made a commitment to the community. I wanted to make sure that property was purchased so the county would live up to that commitment."

But members of the county's new Democratic administration say the land was overpriced, the police substation is not neededand the whole purchase was a mistake.

Outsiders view the disagreement as the inevitable byproduct of political flux in the county, but officials in the new administration complain that they have been left to clean up the messy aftermath of a bad political decision.

The drab, weedy property on Brock Bridge Road -- which is so close to Laurel Park stables that the scent of hay and horses hangs in the air -- has gone unused since a paving contractor moved out in the mid-1990s.

The land is littered with asphalt, empty drums, tires and debris. One of Gary's blue and yellow campaign signs sits askew on the ground, toppled at the property's front gate. A warehouse, which environmental reports say could be contaminated with asbestos, is visible from the street.

It could cost the county more than $100,000 to turn this site into a suitable place for a police station and for children to play soccer and baseball, County Executive Janet S. Owens said in an interview this week.

"Our sense is we're going to have to try and sell it," she said. "I don't know why it was purchased, but that's a lot of money that, quite frankly, could have been used for a slew of other things."

Owens and other county officials said they were disturbed by the decision to rush through the land purchase. In a Nov. 23 letter to the County Council, Auditor Teresa Sutherland criticized the decision to wire $1 million to West Arundel developer Nicholas Andrew. The money was sent so quickly that a series of approvals and reviews was neglected, she said.

"The Administration purchased the Andrew parcel without following the county's purchasing procedures," she wrote, saying that she "took exception" to the way the purchase was handled.

Gary dismissed her assessment. The two are longtime antagonists. He said the land sale was more than a year in the making. He said he found the property himself, while driving around the neighborhood with Ray Smallwood, president of the local civic association.

"I didn't even know who it belonged to," Gary said. "I just remember looking out there and thinking this would be ideal. It's got good access, it's not near any homes. I figured we could get our police station and a major recreation complex out of it."

Gary said the purpose of the Advanced Land Acquisition fund, where he got the money for the deal, was to be able to act quickly, while a parcel is on the market. The county had two appraisers review the price. One estimated the value at $900,000, the other, at just over $1 million.

Andrew bought the parcel at auction for $60,000 and has owned it for three decades. He owns scores of acres in the Maryland City area. He also has been politically active for years. In 1996 and 1997, he donated at least $4,000 to Gary's campaign through M.O.M. Corp., a now-defunct business he owned, according to campaign records.

In December, after Gary had lost the election, Andrew and relatives at his Severna Park address donated $2,200 to Owens' campaign fund, records show.

Attempts to reach Andrew for comment were unsuccessful.

Gary rejected any suggestion that his relationship with Andrew -- which he described as cordial, but not cozy -- factored into the county's decision to buy the land.

"That's just good stuff to write in the newspaper," he said.

"Contrary to what people might think, the county executive doesn't get involved in the actual purchasing process in any intricate way," he said. "There are a lot of people to buffer me from the property and from all that baloney about conflict of interest."

As for the stated purpose of the purchase -- the police substation -- Gary said he is disappointed with what he says is a turnabout by police. The nearest station for that area is in Odenton, he said.

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