Site may become park

Razed Towson gas station could be taken by county

July 31, 2006|By LAURA BARNHARDT | LAURA BARNHARDT,SUN REPORTER

A plan to rid Towson of a long-standing eyesore and replace it with a park is expected to be announced this week.

The county would condemn a rubble-covered property just off the Towson traffic circle, where a Shell station closed at least six years ago, as part of a move to spruce up the county seat.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. is expected to talk about the plan during a news conference tomorrow.

The gas station was located on about a third of an acre on York Road, near Towson Town Center mall and Towson Circle development. The property is directly across from the future home of Fidelity Investments, which plans to build a "contemporary signature building" that will replace three small office buildings there now.

Vincent J. Gardina, the Baltimore County councilman who represents the area, said creating a park would help improve the look of the area and "connect the lower part of the Towson business district with the upper part."

The county's master plan calls for building a park on the property. A team of out-of-town designers and architects that helped Towson residents draw up new plans for the county seat in June also recommended that redeveloping the gas station site be a priority.

But eminent domain - the process through which a government entity takes ownership of private property - has been an especially touchy subject in Baltimore County. In 2000, county voters rejected Senate Bill 509, which would have authorized the county to take ownership of certain properties in the Essex and Dundalk areas for redevelopment.

Before county officials could make their intentions for the former Shell station public, Towson community leaders began debating whether the county should take the property through condemnation proceedings.

Corrine Becker, president of the Riderwood Hills Community Association, said she's concerned any time the government uses the power to take property. "Any use of eminent domain makes me wary," she said, adding that she realizes there's a difference between taking property for a park and taking it so that a private developer can build a project. But, Becker said, she's concerned that the county is taking the land when there still might be a private party interested in purchasing it.

"I'm not out to kill everything the county comes up with," Becker said. "I just don't want this to be a step in the wrong direction."

Dick Parsons, a West Towson activist, said he also was concerned that the county might be taking the property too quickly. But, Parsons said, he was glad to see the gas station razed.

Other community leaders, though, feel that the county must condemn the property.

"The county isn't taking this property from a homeowner," said Mike Ertel, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations. "The only precedent they're setting is taking a gas station to build a park."

Ertel, Becker, Parsons and others see an important distinction between taking property for "economic development" and taking it for public projects, such as schools and parks.

"This isn't 509," Ertel said.

Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for Smith, would only confirm that the county executive plans to make a "major announcement" about the county's plans for the Shell property at news conference.

But, speaking generally, Mohler said, "The county executive has been crystal clear about this since the day he was elected. And the voters have spoken loud and clear. We do not and will not support taking property for private economic development."

The county has been negotiating with Shell Oil Corp. for more than a year to buy the property, according to county sources. Although they long ago agreed on a price - about a half-million dollars - they couldn't agree on who would be liable for any environmental damage, according to county sources.

Officials with Shell did not return calls on Friday. In an e-mail, Anne Peebles, a Shell spokeswoman, said that Motiva Enterprises LLC, a joint venture between Shell and Saudi Refining, is the owner of the former gas station.

"Motiva has recently received notice from the county of the potential condemnation. Our goal remains to transfer ownership of the property, whether to the county or a buyer," Peebles wrote. "Since the notice we received is only of `potential' condemnation, the site is still listed for sale. We will of course inform any potential buyers of the county's notice."

She referred questions about price to a real estate agent, who did not return calls Friday.

By condemning the site, the county would be able to take ownership and build the park, but liability wouldn't be transferred to the county in the process, the county sources said.

The vacant Shell station was demolished in June by the oil giant, just before county officials were set to tear it down under a county law that allows the demolition of abandoned gas stations.

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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