Anne Arundel, Baltimore resolve dispute over park

County to assume control but pay no rent to city


Baltimore will turn over control of a scenic, 100-acre waterfront park it owns to Anne Arundel County, ending a decades-old regional dispute that focused recently on complaints that the city failed to adequately police or maintain the property nine miles outside the city limits.

Under the deal, the county will assume daily control of Fort Smallwood Park and take responsibility for security. The county will pay no rent, but it will pay for cleanup of lead paint and asbestos at several structures on the property, a project the county estimates could cost $10 million.

The agreement signals an end to decades of tensions between the city and the county over the park, the site of a fort built in 1896 to protect Baltimore's harbor. For years, neighbors have complained that the city hasn't kept up the park or prevented rowdy behavior, gunshots and drug dealing there.

County overtures to acquire the park and its beaches date back as far as 1966.

"I'm thrilled that they will do something ... hopefully," Kathy Fordyce, who lives near the park and regularly walks her dogs there, said when told about the deal.

The licensing agreement is for 45 years, with an option to renew for 30 more years. The city Board of Estimates, which must approve the agreement, is expected to give its support next week. The deal must also be approved by the National Park Service because the land was once owned by the federal government.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, both Democrats, announced the agreement yesterday. It allows O'Malley, who is running for governor, to cite progress on an issue that potentially could have damaged him in a battleground county.

"We are pleased to enter this regional partnership that will enhance the park and its facilities, and will preserve and maintain our green spaces for the enjoyment of everyone," O'Malley said in a statement.

Named for former governor and Continental Army Gen. William Smallwood, the park is known for its panoramic views along the mouth of the Patapsco River, stretching from the industrial heart of Baltimore to the open waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

The U.S. Army sold the land to Baltimore for $50,000 in 1927 on the condition that the wooded point on the mouth of the Patapsco River would remain parkland, or revert back to the federal government. Another condition of the sale stipulated that the property could not be sold or leased to another party. That's why Baltimore and Anne Arundel officials settled on a licensing agreement, which costs the county nothing.

A 1927 article in The Sun quoted officials as saying that Fort Smallwood "has a bathing beach that is superior to any along the upper stretches of the bay." The park, according to a 1968 Sun article, was a popular spot for Baltimoreans to travel to by boat in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1968, then-City Council President William Donald Schaefer visited the park in an effort to keep it from being turned into an industrial site.

Over the years, the city considered abandoning the park and pursued various other uses as attendance dwindled, maintenance was cut back and structures fell into disrepair.

In 1976, then-city Sheriff George W. Freeburger proposed turning the property into a ranch for underprivileged boys. Five years later, the operators of Hersheypark in Pennsylvania studied the idea of building a recreational complex with entertainment pavilions, restaurants and overnight lodging, but the company concluded that the $12 million project was not feasible.

City officials nearly closed the park in 1999.

In recent years, Anne Arundel officials and neighbors from the Pasadena area have revived complaints about park conditions.

Many of the crumbling buildings are covered with lead-based paint and were cordoned off with chain-link fences after a 1998 city report revealed lead contamination. They were scheduled to be leveled and the grounds cleaned, but the buildings remain standing, although some of the fences have fallen over or disappeared.

The Sun reported early this year that fences were not placed around two rusted playground sites that were laden with cracked lead paint. City officials said in February that they had begun to replace the playgrounds, but a recent visit revealed that they had been ripped up.

Residents have also become irate about what they say is a lack of police presence from Baltimore, which has had primary jurisdiction over the park.

Neighbors have complained about the crackle of rifle fire - mostly from hunters of waterfowl - the squealing of drag racers and dirt bikes, and noise from late-night parties after the park is supposed to be closed. The park has long had a problem with fights and vandalism. Baltimore police officials have said that they respond to calls but that they usually place a priority on more urgent matters within the city limits.

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