Aberdeen annexation fought

December 04, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

On a breezy September afternoon, Jerry Queen invited some friends over for a cookout on his front lawn, which overlooks a golf course that the city of Aberdeen wants to annex to help make way for more than 1,000 homes.

After throwing some hot dogs on the grill, he pulled his pickup truck onto the grass and opened the hood - to maximize the sound of his horn when he blared it into a golfer's backswing.

He decided against actually laying on the horn, on the advice of his attorney, but the golf course owner who is pushing the development likely got the message anyway: All the attendees at his party were wearing red shirts, the uniform of those opposed to the proposed annexation that has riven this Harford County community.

The debate has at times gotten ugly. Queen said he has been harassed since he and other residents successfully fought for a referendum that will put approval of the growth plan in the hands of city voters next week. Mangled cars and heavy-duty construction equipment were placed next to Queen's home, and a portable toilet for golfers appeared across the street.

"It sounds like the Hatfields and the McCoys, doesn't it?" said Queen's wife, Rosemary.

Less than a month after Election Day, Aberdeen residents find themselves in the throes of another bitter campaign, the result of which both sides say will have major implications for the growing military outpost. Voters have been swarmed over the last several days, as the special election will be held tomorrow.

Opponents say the 520-acre development, called the Wetlands, has been hastily planned, will strain city services and increase taxes. City officials say the project offers a unique opportunity for smart growth. The city has devised a funding formula to make sure the new homes pay for the additional services that will be required, and have dangled the possibility of future tax reductions. Police say it will help improve public safety by providing more money for officers.

Since taking office last November, Mayor S. Fred Simmons, who owns an insurance business, has been working to overcome a budget deficit while planning for growth as the federal Base Realignment and Closure process brings thousands of workers and their families to Aberdeen Proving Ground.

For decades, Interstate 95 served as the city's de facto western border. That changed with the construction of Ripken Stadium in 2002, where a developer plans to build shops, a multiplex and homes. The Wetlands could extend the city even farther north and west.

Conceived as an upscale subdivision, the project would feature townhouses, garage villas, condominiums and individual houses priced at an average of $350,000, the developers said. An impact fee of $20,000 would be assessed on each home to offset infrastructure costs, such as roads, water and schools.

"That area will get developed. The [property owners] want it, and it will happen," said City Councilman Michael G. Hiob. "Why not let the city control it and reap the financial benefits?"

Angered by what they perceived as the city government's attempts to whisk the proposal through the planning process, residents who live near the Wetlands perked up over the summer and began clamoring for more information. When the City Council approved the plan, 5-0, despite the objections of hundreds of residents at a June meeting, the residents began a petition to force a referendum.

"This whole thing, to me, is more against the City Council right now than the developer," Queen said. "You should listen to your people, listen to the voters."

To be sure, many of the residents also listened to offers from the developers. One of the leading opponents, Paul Burkheimer, said the $3 million offered to him couldn't justify selling his business. But his brother and next-door neighbor, who owns the family's 150-acre farm, cashed in for $10 million.

"Their real concern has nothing to do with tax base or infrastructure," said Curtis C. Coon, an attorney representing the Wetlands development team. "This is politically driven by forces that have nothing to do with the best interests of the city of Aberdeen."

The opponents argue that the city is not holding the developers to their commitments and could be taken advantage of. They don't want to lose the rural character of their neighborhood and say schools and roads are already choked.

Neither side disputes that previous annexations have been poorly planned.

"It's not just this one annexation," said Bobbie Randles, an organizer of the group. "[The base realignment] seems to be giving developers some leverage over government to push through their agendas. We're concerned we could get into a bad situation."

Two special elections will be held tomorrow, with city residents and residents of the proposed annexation area each asked to vote for or against annexation. If either results in the measure being defeated, the annexation agreement would be thrown out, according to state law.

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