For charity

October 11, 2011

Any time the government gives away land — or sells it, for that matter — there's every reason for there to be a level of public uneasiness. After all, as the late Louis L. Goldstein was fond of pointing out, there's only so much land and the good Lord isn't making any more.

In recent years, Harford County has engaged in some rather odd arrangements involving real estate, ranging from the give-away of Perryman waterfront property to a developer under a previous administration to the relatively recent swap-out of a county road right-of-way in Forest Hill.

These transactions seemed a bit off kilter, but then again, governments dealing in buying and selling — and especially the selling — land is not an ordinary occurrence.

That's why when the government makes a move to sell, swap or give away any property there's supposed to be a public hearing on the matter, that way if anyone knows of anything untoward going on, it can be revealed. Similarly, it's perfectly legitimate to express a general or specific opposition to a proposed government land deal.

In the county's most recent land deal, namely its decision to give away houses valued at $530,000 to Associated Catholic Charities, a number of concerns were raised in public forums, including before the Harford County Council prior to it making a final decision.

Catholic Charities has for years been running Anna's House, a women's shelter, on the properties in question. Issues raised ranged from a need to keep separate church and state to whether the government should be subsidizing charity, to whether it would have made more sense for the county to sell the land. While these and other issues associated with the deal are not to be taken lightly as all are questions that perhaps need to be asked more often, in this case giving away the land was the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, Harford County needs a women's shelter as our communities are far from immune to the ills of domestic violence. Such an operation is a vital public service provided by a private entity, not unlike the county's fire and ambulance service or the arrangement the county has for an animal shelter.

Anna's House has provided the service to the county for years, making good use of the county-owned houses. The deal approved by the county council requires ownership to revert to the county if the houses are used for anything other than a family shelter. The deal ensures the county will get the property back if the benefit goes away, and it eliminates a layer of bureaucracy for those managing the properties should they want to make improvements.

The level of scrutiny given to the deal was perfectly appropriate, but it is a reasonable arrangement. Too bad such public scrutiny isn't given to some of the county's land dealings with developers.

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