Price is right

November 08, 2011

Harford County's imminent acquisition of 110  acres in an area that in a span of a few decades has gone from being open farmland to one of the most densely populated areas in the county comes as welcome news.

In tough economic times, the price comes as even better news: by and large the property, worth an estimated $14 million to $17 million, is going to fall into county hands for the cost of having county staff members do the paperwork.

From a certain perspective, it's free, the result of a gift of the estate of the late Emily Bayliss Graham. It hasn't seemed free, though to those working on the project; as County Attorney Robert McCord put it: "I think it's the hardest we've ever worked to get a gift given to the county."

The effort of those working on ensuring the county receives the land bequeathed to it should not go unheralded. The land is in the heart of the Route 24 corridor near the Wheel Road intersection, and remains in a state largely similar to what the whole of Route 24 looked like before development.

In those days, what is today Route 924 was Route 24 and the four-lane highway that now bears those numbers wasn't even a trail. Plenty of people around these days can tell of a time when the only thing on Route 24 between Bel Air and Edgewood was the 7-Eleven store near Patterson Mill Road that these days would be easy to miss amid all the office buildings, gas stations, retail operations, restaurants and houses.

The Route 24 corridor has changed a lot, but Mrs. Graham, it turns out, didn't want to see the whole of it change from what it was. In willing land over to the county, one of her wishes for the property was for part of it to be a passive recreation area. This is what's in the cards for the 69 acres on the east side of 24 across Wheel Road from the Festival at Bel Air shopping center.

Mrs. Graham was interested in gardening and nature, and these aspects of her life are reflected in the wish for the property to remain a passive park.

On the west side of Route 24 on a similarly undeveloped 41 acres of the property — a property that wasn't divided prior to the building of what was for years known as the New 24 — the county is expecting to enter into a lease agreement with the Center for the Arts, a not-for-profit group seeking to open a county cultural center.

From a public policy standpoint, both uses have their merits. The Route 24 corridor is short on park space — though it has some at the Patterson Mill school complex — and lacking in passive recreation space, that being parkland not dedicated to athletic fields. If the popularity of passive recreation facilities like the Ma&Pa Heritage Trail in Bel Air are any indication, a similar park in Abingdon will be well received.

While it remains to be seen how a cultural arts center would be distinguished from existing performance spaces in our public schools, notably at the Amoss Performing Arts Center in Campus Hills, it's hard to argue against putting some kind of community center in the heart of the Route 24 corridor.

Whether it needs to be strictly oriented to cultural arts is a question for another day.

All in all, the county's acquisition of 110 acres that could easily have simply ended up as a few hundred, if not many more, houses contributing to already crowded public facilities is a welcome change of pace.

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