Councilman goes to bat for his favorite bar

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October 12, 2005|By LAURA VOZZELLA

Ever since Bobby Curran went on a tear about sweetheart real estate deals, the city councilman's critics have whispered the reason:

"It's about a bar," they say.

Curran is glad to confirm it: His crusade began with Jerry's Belvedere Tavern, a windowless saloon that sits beside a scruffy vacant lot where the city says it spends $15,058 a year on landscaping.

"It's my Cheers," Curran says. "It's my haunt for 30 years."

At the corner of Northern Parkway and York Road, the bar is long on 25-cent chicken wings and buck-and-a-quarter Buds, but short on parking. Patrons often leave their cars on an adjacent vacant lot owned by the city.

Bar owners Pietro and Beatrice Rugolo wanted to buy the 1/3 -acre lot - only a sliver of it, 1/10th of an acre, suitable for building - to create paved parking for about a dozen cars.

Curran, whose political signs are plastered outside the bar at election time, says he helped the Rugolos reach a $6,500 "handshake deal" with the city's real estate office.

Enter the molasses-in-January pace of municipal governance.

Three years passed before the deal was ready to be sealed. Comptroller Joan M. Pratt - who says her real estate office never agreed to the $6,500 price - asked for an updated appraisal. It came in at $13,000. The city said that was the sale price.

The Rugolos balked.

The city said it would settle for $9,000 if the Rugolos didn't restrict the lot to bar customers.

The Rugolos walked.

Curran complains that the city played hardball with that rinky-dink deal but has rolled over for big developers, selling far more valuable parcels way below their appraised values and cheating taxpayers out of millions.

Pratt says sometimes there is a good reason - if a project will generate a lot of jobs, for example - for selling larger properties below fair market value.

Curran doesn't disagree with that. But if developers get a break, he wants it spelled out. So he's pushing for a bill that would require up-to-date appraisals - made within six months of the sale - for all city real estate deals.

And to critics who say he's catering to his favorite watering hole, Curran points to another of his bills that would make it illegal to light up at Jerry's and other bars.

"They weren't happy," says Curran, an ex-smoker. "Put it that way."

That adds up to a lot of manure

Now, about that $15,058-a-year landscaping bill.

The whopping price tag appears in an e-mail from a transportation official to Curran, who shows it off to make the case that selling the lot would have been good for the city.

Can that be right?

The lot isn't much to look at. There are eight stubby pine trees, some shrubs, a couple of rusting bins full of Jerry's waste cooking oil, and a big drum overflowing with trash.

A spokesman for the Transportation Department, which acquired the lot when the road was widened years ago, says the price is right.

"That is correct," says David Brown. "You'd be surprised. Those are pretty basic fees. Basically, what's going on over there, we're doing landscaping and routine maintenance."

I ran that by a local landscaper who's familiar with the parcel.

"Fifteen grand a year to maintain that? I wish I had that job," said Richard Wike, owner of Azaleas to Zinnias in Towson.

What could Wike do for that amount of money? He e-mails me a picture that looks like something Monet would paint.

"A water feature, continuous blooming from March till November, starting out with tulips, daffodils, blooming shrubs. Come by once a month and see if it needs weeding," he says. "And in the fall, do a lot of sprucing up, mulch it, add some mums. Maintenance shouldn't be more than $3,000 a year."

Wike adds: "Put my name in there. Maybe they'll hire me.

Bargain? We couldn't afford the basement

Further proof that Montgomery County and Baltimore City aren't on the same planet:

Montgomery County Councilman Steve Silverman introduced a bill yesterday that would require builders to set aside a share of new construction for "work force" or "middle class" housing.

Cost of those bargain-basement abodes: $300,000 to $350,000.

An APB goes out for a missing face

Have you seen the big Ed Norris billboard on the JFX?

I'm not just making conversation here. I ask because it seems to be missing. Half of it, anyway.

A huge cutout of the ex-commish, arms crossed and face in a half-serious glare, loomed over I-83 last week, promoting his radio show on WHFS-FM. "I've done my time ... Give me some of yours," it read.

The words are still there. But this week, Norris is nowhere to be seen. What's the deal?

Hal Martin, marketing director for Infinity Radio, the station's owner, is a little mysterious about the whole thing.

"Perhaps someone cut it out and stole it," he says. "Or perhaps it will appear elsewhere in town."

If somebody swiped it, police might start looking at a few likely suspects: Females #1-8.

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