Hard to believe though it may be, the Harford County government has been legally able to buy land without first getting it appraised.
This seems to defy logic on a number of levels, not the least of which is that when a government is able to buy land without first having a good idea of its value, the system is left vulnerable to the politically well-connected able to sell property at inflated prices with only their allies in office being party to the deal.
Granted, there is a public interest in a government being able to negotiate to buy land without those negotiations being revealed to the general public in advance. If the county needs a particular parcel at a strategic location for an intersection improvement, school or other public project and negotiations were open to the general public, the way would be left clear for unscrupulous investors to cut a deal with the seller, then turn around and charge the county an unreasonable price for the land in question.
Getting a fair appraisal of a parcel's value, however, doesn't preclude a level of security being retained by the county when it is in negotiations to buy land. So long as those involved in doing appraisals of land up for county purchase are held to the same standards they would be by large business entities, the danger of negotiations being revealed by the hire of an appraiser would be minimal.
Before the Harford County Council is a bill that would require the county to secure two appraisals of any property purchased for more than $100,000. The bill was inspired by the county's purchase of the old Coleman Plecker's World of Golf property on Route 7 in Joppa - the site being pushed by the county government for a trash transfer station. That property was purchased without the benefit of an appraisal and, subsequently, there have been plenty of criticisms that too much was spent on the land.
It has since come to light that the county has been party to 12 real estate purchases in the past three years involving 14 properties, including the Joppa trash transfer site property.
Did the county pay fair market value for the land? It's hard to say. Land, like any commodity, is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. A farm within easy commuting distance of a major employment center is worth an awful lot more than a farm of the same size situated beyond the reach of reliable cell phone service, but if someone of substantial means is in the market for seclusion, the remote farm may suddenly have a greater value.
Unusual factors aside, however, the county — or anyone else buying land — is generally doing the smart thing by getting land appraised before buying it. The county is doubly protected by doing so because it then has reasonable protections against criticisms of paying too much based on nefarious reasons.
While this is a case of the gate being closed after the horse has left the barnyard, at least there is reason to believe there will be protections against similar spending of public money for land of unsubstantiated value.