Proposal to raze homes near dam expected


April 03, 2001|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Five months after residents thought they'd stopped the demolition of Conowingo Village, an abandoned neighborhood in Harford County, the state and the power company that owns the property are poised to announce that most of the homes will be demolished and the area turned into parkland.

Neither the Department of Natural Resources nor Pennsylvania-based Exelon Generation would give details of the negotiations, but Del. Barry Glassman, a Harford Republican who has worked on the issue, said he expects an announcement in the next several weeks that the state will take over the property and preserve one or two homes. The rest will likely be razed in a controlled burn.

Ben Armstrong, a spokesman for Exelon, said the company wants to give the property to someone else or return the area to its original condition. "What we want to do is come to a solution that is not only best for the company but best for the community," Armstrong said. "We know these homes have been a part of the community since 1928."

A group of residents pleaded with Exelon last November to let them find a use for the 16 English Tudor-style homes by the Susquehanna River. Although Exelon agreed to a 90-day reprieve and negotiated with state agencies and legislators to donate the property, community attention waned over the months, and a rumor that the homes would be used for drug rehabilitation or homeless shelters soured many in the area on the idea of saving them.

The homes represent a piece of Harford County history - they were built to house Conowingo Dam engineers while the hydroelectric plant was being constructed - and feature oak balustrades, glass doorknobs, bay windows, stone fireplaces and hardwood floors. From the balconies and sunrooms of some of the houses, residents could have peered through thick trees to the river below.

Some plan to continue to fight to save the houses.

"People don't like to see waste," said Joni F. Nugent of Darlington, who helped spearhead the preservation efforts.

The houses' condition and location have made a variety of renovation and reuse ideas impractical, and the group of people who set out to save them find themselves back where they started.

"It's not just as simple as saying `Hey, we've got some nice houses here,'" said Harford County Councilman Lance C. Miller, who added that he favored a green space idea all along. "It's a fine line between doing what people want and what you think is right."

Because the county would have needed state funds to operate a drug rehabilitation center, it would have been required to serve people from other areas, Miller said. The prospect of drug addicts from Baltimore moving to the sleepy community of Darlington wasn't popular among residents. Security concerns also dampened enthusiasm for turning the houses into shelters for battered women or the homeless.

Harford County Habitat for Humanity inspected the homes, and it hasn't officially decided whether it would be interested in renovating the properties and turning them over to low-income families, said Michael S. Myers, vice president of the organization's local board. But he said the group has serious doubts.

The Harford chapter of Habitat has never taken on a renovation project before, and this one would be substantial. The homes have been vandalized since the renters who lived there were evicted in October. Pipes burst over the winter and local police caused incidental damage while using the houses to practice hostage rescues.

Getting funding and marshaling enough volunteers would be a major challenge, Myers said, and bringing the homes up to contemporary well and septic standards would also be a problem. The remoteness also means the homes might not be well-suited to the families Habitat typically helps because it's not near jobs or public transportation, he said.

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