Land dispute divides Havre de Grace residents

Politician challenged ads that inaccurately listed size of city lot for sale

October 10, 1999|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

In Baltimore, 4,000 square feet equals five rowhouse lots. In Havre de Grace, it equals five months of political brouhaha.

Controversy has clung like morning mist to a vacant lot a stone's throw from the Susquehanna River in this historic Harford County town since May, when a newly elected councilwoman questioned the lot's size.

Advertisements to sell the 10,000-square-foot, city-owned lot described it as 4,000 square feet smaller than it was. The error was acknowledged by the City Council, but that failed to defuse a dispute that mushroomed into angry public meetings, widespread gossip, and City Council members sparring through letters and ads in the local paper.

The squabble reached critical mass in July, when an unidentified citizen asked the state prosecutor to investigate -- the first time anyone in town can remember such a request. A report by State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, released Thursday, found no wrongdoing by city officials.

But local officials and citizens are still shaking their heads over such a fuss in this close-knit, picturesque town of 13,000, where politics are spirited but rarely rancorous for long.

"I think it's outlandish. Period," says former City Councilwoman Cecelia M. Stepp, now on the Harford County Council. "I've never heard of anything like this."

But it's generated plenty of talk. "You hear it everywhere you go -- people talking about it in restaurants, on the street," said one resident, who asked not to be identified.

"It was more than a distraction," said Mary Ann Lisanti, a native who is the city manager. "It was a very difficult time when honorable people's integrity was challenged."

Betty Coakley, the City Council member elected in May who first raised the issue, says she has received a lot of unsigned constituent mail supporting her position -- including one poem that reads, "Expose the dirty linen/To the harsh sunlight/You'll be cursed and vilified/Doesn't matter if you're right."

The lot in question -- a small parcel that sold for $35,000, a tiny fraction of the city's annual $9 million budget -- hardly seems worth the fuss.

But, like nearly everything else in this town perched at the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay, its history is long, colorful and somewhat tangled.

Originally part of a logging pond run by a local family nearly two centuries ago, the parcel became public property through an unusual series of leases spanning most of this century.

Most recently -- from 1945 until the 1980s -- a local family lived on the property. They paid city taxes but didn't own it -- an unusual arrangement that lasted until 1996, when the city took over the land.

Deeds from that period and earlier described the lot as 100 feet by 100 feet, but the taxes were collected on a lot that was only 60 feet by 100 feet -- a difference of 4,000 square feet. The City Council used the smaller dimensions in December advertisements announcing the sale.

At the same time, another dispute arose over how much the lot was worth. It was initially valued at $110,000, a figure everyone agrees was too high. A second appraisal set the value at $34,000, a figure Coakley and some residents say was too low.

The council decided to sell the parcel for $35,000 to the only bidders: Barry and Jean Bomboy, who wanted to expand their candy-making business across the street. Voters overwhelmingly approved the sale 1,090 to 243.

After the election, Coakley continued her campaign, buying ads in the local newspaper, the Record.

"I will seek to overturn the results of the referendum on the basis of the misinformation given to the voters," she said in one ad. "I feel that the voters of Havre de Grace were deceived by the City Administration."

Those charges, which Mayor Philip J. Barker called "a shocker," were answered in a full-page letter to the editor signed by Barker and Coakley's five colleagues on the city council.

A month later, the state prosecutor was brought in to investigate the case.

"I've been involved in city government since 1979," said Barker, who has lived in the town nearly 40 years. "I can't remember in city government anything ever being reported to the Office of the State Prosecutor."

Coakley says she was not the complainant and does not know who was.

Meanwhile, candy store owner Barry Bomboy says he's still baffled by the fuss.

"This is our first dealing with politics," he says, shaking his head. "It's all blown out of proportion. I don't know how it came about or why we're in the middle of it. We wanted to do it right."

The state prosecutor's finding has cleared the way for the city to finalize the sale to Bomboy quickly.

Whether the political rift will end so soon, however, remains uncertain.

"I think most citizens will say we should move forward," says Barker.

"It has not been a happy situation. I don't know," says Coakley.

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