City denies plan to buy Fairfield houses

Letters sent since April were `error,' official says

June 25, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Adding to the confusion over the relocation of Fairfield peninsula residents, City Solicitor Otho Thompson says the city is not buying the homes in the hamlets of Fairfield and the Heights, as city officials had earlier promised.

Thompson's comments contradict the city housing department, which has insisted that the city intends to buy out and relocate any Fairfield resident who wants to leave the heavily industrial neighborhood. The city has sent at least three letters to residents since April expressing interest in acquiring their properties, and has hired appraisers.

But after an article about the letters appeared in The Sun Tuesday, Thompson called the newspaper to say the letters were a mistake, and no offer has been made to Fairfield residents. He indicated that while residents were free to make requests of the city, they might be better off talking to the chemical companies FMC Corp. and Condea Vista, which have made their buyout offer to residents.

Rena Steinzor, an attorney for the residents, said they would ask Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to reconsider. But Schmoke said Wednesday that he had asked Thompson to call The Sun to clarify the city's position.

"The city doesn't have a program for Fairfield," said Thompson. "What was sent out to residents was sent out in error. The only offer I know of is the one from the chemical companies."

Thompson's comments represent the latest twist in the buyout and relocation of the residents of the peninsula, which includes Wagner's Point and the two smaller sections of Fairfield and the Heights. Wagner's Point's 90 homes are being bought by the city under an eminent domain ordinance, but no similar law is in place for Fairfield.

City housing officials had said a law was not needed because they intended to buy out Fairfield as part of a long-standing commitment. City records show that since a dispute in the 1970s over the lack of sidewalks and roads in Fairfield, the city has agreed to purchase the property of any resident who wanted to leave. The most recent such purchase was completed in 1994.

"We've always said that for anyone in Fairfield who wants to move, we will consider it," Reggie Scriber, a senior housing official working on the issue, said last week. "The city is living up to its promises here."

Thompson offered no further explanation for the apparent shift in the city's position. Housing officials -- including Scriber and the letters' author, city land acquisition official Walter Horton -- did not return phone calls yesterday.

Fairfield and Heights residents expressed outrage yesterday at what they called a reversal by the city, and said they would be forced to accept the chemical companies' offer. Residents had generally preferred a city buyout because the money would not be taxed, and because the chemical companies have made their offer contingent on residents' agreeing to release FMC and Condea Vista from liability for the health effects of pollution.

John Herb, who lives on Fairfield Road, said the city had sent him a letter in April expressing interest in buying his home, and later sent two appraisers to put a value on his home. He said he had found a new home on his understanding with city officials that he would be relocated.

"Maybe the city is trying to play a peek-a-boo game now," said Herb, who has lived on the peninsula for 50 years. "I think the city doesn't want to spend the money now that the companies are willing to do it."

Steinzor accused the solicitor of serving the interests of the chemical companies over those of the public and the residents.

"The city has thrust [Fairfield and Heights] residents into the arms of the chemical industry, forcing them to give up their legal rights to sue FMC and Condea Vista if they get cancer in order to have the same opportunity to move as their neighbors in Wagner's Point."

Sun researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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