2nd Gary land deal under review

Businessman traded Curtis Creek land

got trash facility agreement

September 01, 1999|By Matthew Mosk and Laura Sullivan | Matthew Mosk and Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County officials are trying to sort out another complex land deal that former County Executive John G. Gary engineered during his final weeks in office, this one again involving the purchase of land with little apparent potential for public use.

The deal, for 40 acres of wooded waterfront along Curtis Creek, took place in December, at the same time the county spent $1 million for Maryland City property that has gone unused.

The Curtis Creek land came to the county in a trade Gary brokered that handed a Millersville businessman the chance to quietly open a garbage transfer station that had been opposed by residents.

County officials said the land was a possible site for a boat launch. But when Recreation and Parks Director Dennis Callahan visited the property recently, he was baffled.

"I couldn't figure it out," he said. "It's really not an ideal spot. It's almost impossible to reach, and it's surrounded by heavy industry. To be honest, I don't understand how or why we came to own it."

In recent weeks, an FBI agent has met with county officials to inquire about both land deals, and has requested copies of related documents, sources said.

Gary could not be reached for comment. But current and past administrators who helped broker the purchase of the land along Curtis Creek defended it as sound.

Tom Andrews, who was Gary's chief administrator and is the county's top land-use official, said the land might be "worth its weight in gold."

"It's a fairly pristine property; the water there is good, the depth is good, the quality is good," Andrews said. "It was attractive at the time, and still has some potential."

Unlike the Maryland City purchase, which sent $1 million in taxpayer money to a Gary campaign donor, the Curtis Creek deal was not a direct purchase.

The land was thrown in as part of a more complicated agreement that enabled Millersville businessman William K. Blanchet to open the county's second garbage transfer facility.

Blanchet agreed to sell the county Curtis Creek property valued at $500,000 for $35,000.

In exchange, officials signed an agreement that allowed him to open the facility on nearby Stahl Point Road, and reduced the fees connected with operating it.

Blanchet, who opened his trash transfer site in April, said he approached Gary with the plan in early 1996.

At that meeting, Blanchet said he wanted to open a transfer facility -- where trash is sorted and prepared for shipment out of the county -- at Curtis Creek. But he could not afford the high regulatory fees the county's other facility at Annapolis Junction pays.

"I'm a mom-and-pop company compared to the bigger guy," Blanchet said. "I got the best deal I could. And I had this piece of property that seemed to fit very nicely with what the county wanted that I couldn't use because the residents didn't want all the truck traffic from a transfer station."

He said he offered Gary a swap for the 40 acres, and Gary set the deal into motion.

For the administration to push the deal through, it needed support from the then-Councilman George F. Bachman, whose district would become home to the unpopular and politically unpalatable trash business, Andrews said.

Bachman proposed that part of the fees the county extracted from the transfer station be earmarked for use in his district.

"We wanted that money for land improvements, schools, or money for recreation and parks," Bachman said. "I would not have been for it unless my district got something."

But Andrews said county officials negotiated for parkland.

Acquiring Blanchet's property would give the county 80 acres along Curtis Creek.

"It seemed to us that we picked up a pretty good deal," Andrews said.

Bachman said he never signed off on the arrangement because the park land was not in his district. He thought the deal was pending.

But behind the scenes, it had moved forward.

The transfer station was exempted from zoning restrictions as part of a council bill passed last March with no fanfare.

The fee agreement with the county was signed in September. And in December, with everything else in place, the only remaining step was for the county to collect its 40 acres.

County Executive Janet S. Owens, in office a few weeks, signed the papers that made the land purchase final.

"At that point, we could see no reason not to buy the land," said Marvin Bond, her chief of staff.

That all this occurred without public input has left some in the community upset, especially because they fought Blanchet's initial plans to build the transfer station on the 40 acres.

When word spread of that first proposal, nearby residents met and demanded a hearing to challenge his zoning permits and truck traffic plans.

"We had the whole gang out there ready to fight this, and suddenly Blanchet disappeared," said resident Marge Huggins. "He was gone. We assumed he just gave up."

Residents wonder how he received county approval to operate across the creek without any of them being notified.

Although the trash station is a mile from homes, it could mean truck traffic and foul odors for residents.

Pamela G. Beidle, who took Bachman's seat on the council, said none of this surprises her.

"That's the story of District 1," Beidle said. "We get all the garbage, and none of the amenities."

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