City quietly begins buyout in Fairfield

Chemical companies and government make competing offers

June 23, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Beating the chemical industry to the buyout, Baltimore has begun acquiring a handful of remaining homes in the neighborhood of Fairfield, in effect extending the public purchase of Wagner's Point to all the communities on the Fairfield peninsula.

Two large chemical plants in southern Baltimore -- detergent ingredient maker Condea Vista and herbicide producer FMC Corp. -- offered to buy the same homes this month in a "neighborly" gesture intended to ward off potential lawsuits over environmental exposure.

But without telling the plants or announcing it publicly, the city has begun appraising the same properties. With the city and chemical companies continuing to proclaim their interest in a purchase, the two dozen or so residents left in Fairfield and a related neighborhood, the Heights, face complicated, competing offers.

Chemical companies would offer the appraised value of a home, a bonus of up to $22,500, a moving allowance of $2,000, and payment of $5,000 for every resident -- in exchange for releasing FMC and Condea Vista from liability.

The city would offer the appraised value plus federally mandated relocation assistance of up to $22,500, but would not require a liability release.

The companies and the city say they want the same outcome: the removal of all residents from the Fairfield peninsula and redevelopment of the land by industry. Condea Vista and FMC have discussed selling land they acquire back to the city.

"It's confusing," said Philip Branco, who has lived in the 3300 block of Tate St. with his wife for more than 10 years. "The city sent us a letter saying they want the property. Now the chemical companies want it, too. And no one has been able to tell us clearly what each offer is worth."

Ruben Smith, a resident of Tate Street for 30 years, said he is likely to accept the city's offer because any money for relocation assistance from the government will not be taxed.

According to documents obtained under Maryland's public information laws, at least three Fairfield homeowners have received letters from Walter J. Horton, development administrator in the city's land acquisition/disposition section, saying that "The Mayor and City Council of Baltimore is interested in acquiring the subject property." All three homeowners had inquired about the possibility of the buyout this year.

With each letter was a brochure titled, "When a Public Agency Acquires Your Property," which describes residents' rights under a 1970 federal law on relocation.

The letters predated by a few weeks the announcement of the company's offer, and Reggie Scriber, a city housing official working on the issue, said the two issues were unrelated. After the settlement of a lawsuit in the 1970s, city officials quietly made a proposal to buy out Fairfield residents who wanted to leave. News of the Wagner's Point buyout, with two major chemical accidents last year, have sparked new interest in the old offer.

"We've always said that for anyone in Fairfield who wants to move, we will consider it," he said. "The city is living up to its promises here."

The buyout and relocation of the three neighborhoods on the Fairfield peninsula -- Wagner's Point, Fairfield and the Heights -- is being watched closely around the country because of its unprecedented mix of private and public funds. The loosely constructed package includes eminent domain legislation by the city, discounted loans from the state, direct aid to the elderly and disabled from the federal government, and relocation aid from the chemical companies.

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