Crisfield land accord is OK'd

Firm with political ties to develop city-owned lots, provide master plan

March 30, 2006|By CHRIS GUY | CHRIS GUY,SUN REPORTER

CRISFIELD -- The City Council voted yesterday to give a politically connected company exclusive rights to develop city-owned property in return for drafting the master plan that will guide downtown redevelopment.

Proponents say the agreement clears the way for Crisfield to take better advantage of a building boom that so far has bypassed much of the ailing downtown.

But critics -- including the Chamber of Commerce and other business and community leaders -- say the six-year deal means the council has effectively handed control of city-owned property to the company, Crisfield Associates LLC.

Joseph Corrado, a Delaware builder, and former Crisfield mayor and Republican state legislator Charles A. McClenahan head the firm.

The council voted 3-2 yesterday to give final approval to the deal, which has been discussed for months. Under the contract, which is billed as a public-private partnership, the company will pay $600,000 or more for a study that will serve as a blueprint for revamping the town of 2,700, the once-prosperous hub of Maryland's seafood industry.

The company is also paying for a study of the state-owned Somers Cove Marina, a 60-acre facility that likely would be the cornerstone of any Crisfield redevelopment. Crisfield officials have asked that the 45-year-old marina be turned over to the city.

In return for the company's work, the deal guarantees that Crisfield Associates will have a share of profits from any development that occurs on city-owned sites. How the city and the company would divide profits would be negotiated separately for each project, according to the contract.

"This is an agreement that has been talked about, scrutinized and negotiated for well over a year," McClenahan, who runs an insurance business, said yesterday. "We're putting out the money [for a master plan study], and obviously, we'd want a return."

The council's action comes as a half-dozen high-rise condominiums crowd the waterfront where commercial watermen and seafood processors once worked. With real estate prices soaring lately, one privately-owned 10-acre parcel sold for $10 million.

The city owns about 47 acres adjacent to Somers Cove with an assessed value of $13 million and even greater potential for profits if developed.

Critics see a conflict of interest for the company, which owns an old shipyard on the Big Annemessex River that is regarded as a development site.

"It's a kind of company store mentality here with this council," said John K. Phoebus, a Crisfield attorney who opposes the agreement. "It's a sweetheart deal because the company doesn't have to let anyone else in. They'd have exclusive rights for a share if any city property is developed within six years."

McClenahan said the contract gives his firm and the city the right to back out at any time with 60 days' notice. But the agreement would also require the city, which has an annual budget of about $3 million, to repay Crisfield Associates any costs the company has incurred.

Danny Thompson, a town councilman who works as Somerset County's economic development director, says the partnership is the best way to promote the city's growth.

Yesterday's meeting drew more than 50 people, who crowded a City Hall meeting room. Others were forced to stand in a hallway.

Councilwoman Carolyn Evans, who supports the agreement, said the animosity and hard feelings the proposal has generated in her hometown have convinced her not to seek re-election on June 21. "This has been the hardest thing in my life," Evans said. "I just don't think Crisfield and Associates are a bunch of crooks. They're people of integrity, and I think we should go forward with them."

The dispute has candidates lining up to run for mayor and three council seats, said Raymond Anderson, a member of the city's zoning appeals board who wants to move up. "This council hasn't listened to what the people say."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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