Baltimore County officials say parkland is so scarce in some areas that they're willing to pay premium dollars when it becomes available. But a plan to buy a patch of green on the east side has raised questions from a County Council member about the price the county would pay for it.
The county administration has agreed to pay $900,000 to a developer for about 20 acres of a field next to Sparrows Point High School in Edgemere. The deal requires approval of the County Council, which has scheduled a vote for tonight.
County officials say the land would be preserved as open space, perhaps for a park or for use by science classes.
"You're getting open space as well as allowing the school to continue to use that property for the science magnet program," said Councilman John A. Olszewski Sr.
But his council colleague, T. Bryan McIntire, has questioned why the administration agreed to buy the land at a price higher than that given by appraisers. The county is required to obtain two independent appraisals for any land purchased above $25,000.
For the land near Sparrows Point High, the county would pay 17 percent more than the highest appraisal of $770,000.
"We are these days apparently consistently paying more than the appraised value for the land that we acquire," McIntire said, referring to the county's two purchases of run-down apartment buildings in Yorkway. "And I don't think that's a good practice."
The county would buy the land from developer Mark C. Sapperstein, who owns about 40 acres near the school. He said he recently submitted preliminary plans to the county to build 42 single-family houses on the property. If the deal with the county is approved, he would reduce the project to 18 homes, he said.
He said the $900,000 he would receive from the county would be less than he could earn if he built homes on the land.
"In theory I am losing a good deal of money here," Sapperstein said. He said he would be happy to sell land that would be used by children.
Sapperstein, who has a number of projects throughout the county, has given more than $2,500 to political campaigns of County Council members, state elections records show. And state records list him as the registered agent for more than a dozen limited liability companies that have contributed thousands more to the campaigns of council members and County Executive James T. Smith Jr.
Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for Smith, said Sapperstein's campaign donations had no bearing on the land deal. He said it is not unusual for the county to pay above the appraised value for a piece of land because the market value is often higher.
"I think it's irrelevant who owns it," Mohler said. "We thought that even though we paid above the appraised value, it's a nice improvement for families of Sparrows Point."
Olszewski said he never considered Sapperstein's campaign donations to be relevant to a land deal.
"I think the community will be happy that we're preserving some of their space, and it just so happens that Mr. Sapperstein is the owner," Olszewski said. "I don't see a conflict."
He pointed out that Sapperstein has agreed to clean up contaminated land on a farm in eastern Baltimore County that he wants to develop, even though Sapperstein likely would not have been required by law to do so.
And in December, Sapperstein, of Miramar Development Corp., and representatives of builder Ryland Homes presented school and county officials with a $750,000 donation for construction projects at Glenmar Elementary School in Middle River.
McIntire, who represents the northern area of the county, said it's "relevant" to ask whether Sapperstein's political donations affected his negotiations with the county. He also wondered what the point was of hiring appraisers if the county was not going to pay close to the appraised value.
The county paid Muller-Casella Associates $3,150 and Treffer Appraisal Group $3,240 for appraisals of the land near Sparrows Point High School, a county spokesman said.
A woman at Muller-Casella, which appraised the land at $770,000, said the firm generally does not comment on deals. A spokesman for Treffer, which valued the land at $677,250, said he was not familiar with the Sparrows Point deal. But he said appraisals are generally based on the buyer's intended use of the land.
If the buyer intends to keep the land as open space, the appraised value would be significantly lower than if the buyer intends to build houses on it, said Lee McMichael, an associate at Treffer.
Harry Wujek Jr., president of the North Point Peninsula Community Coordinating Council, said he supports the land deal as a way to preserve land in an area that could eventually be developed. Many residents are anxious about several projects that would increase the number of homes on Sparrows Point.
"It comes out to a 50 percent increase in the number of housing units on our peninsula, which is too much," Wujek said. "We only have one road in and out of here. That's what has people concerned."