In many Harford parkland purchases, the devil is in the details [Editorial]

January 14, 2014|Editorial from The Aegis

Dissent over the latest Harford County appropriations for parkland appear motivated by political gamesmanship in this election year, rather than actual concern for public recreational opportunities.

Be it a grouping of properties associated with the waterfront, a building of some historic import in Bel Air, a soccer field in Aberdeen or a swimming pool facility in Joppa, there are good reasons for local governments to purchase land for parks and recreation facilities across Harford County – and, sometimes, not so good ones.

Many of the county's park facilities have been in place since the county's population was a good deal smaller than its current level of nearly a quarter of a million people. Anyone whose kids are involved with parks and recreation athletic enterprises can attest that facilities are crowded most evenings and weekends when the weather is suitable for outdoor sports. Indoor recreation facilities are at a premium this time of year and tend to be booked solid.

Moreover, there's more to recreation than youth sports, and there's a need to ensure a range of parkland opportunities are available to people of all ages, whether they want to walk along a trail, try to entice a fish to bite or just take in a relaxing vista.

As Harford County's population has grown, places for recreation have become increasingly crowded in the more densely developed areas along the Route 40 and Route 24 corridors, and land for more parks is, not surprisingly, at a premium.

It is thus possible to make the argument – an argument that has been made in this space more than once in recent months – that the county's plan to buy land on the Susquehanna River in Havre de Grace and its purchase, along with the City of Aberdeen, of property for athletic fields at Rock Glenn, were reasonably good ideas.

Similarly, it would be a good idea for the county to pursue the purchase of the old Joppatowne Swim Club for use as a public recreational facility.

And, Bel Air would do well to give serious consideration to pursuing the historic "Brick House" property adjacent to the Liriodendron Mansion in town, which recently failed to sell at public auction.

None of this, however, means the purchase of parkland is always a good idea, nor does it mean the recent deals in Havre de Grace and Aberdeen are not worthy of at least some criticism.

On the subject of the Joppatowne pool and the Bel Air "Brick House," it would be a good idea for the county to acquire the properties if it can be done at a reasonable price. In the case of the pool, County Councilman Dion Guthrie, who represents the Joppa area, has been railing lately about county's purchase of parkland in Havre de Grace and saying the land was bought only because Havre de Grace is the hometown of County Executive David R. Craig. That critique rings hollow as Guthrie is doing the same that he has criticized Craig for doing: advocating for the county government to spend money to buy parkland in his hometown.

Similarly, Harford County Council President Billy Boniface led an effort to prevent the purchase of the waterfront property and related land in Havre de Grace. His argument against it included Guthrie's complaint about the executive making a deal to benefit his hometown, and he also raised reasonable concerns about potential contamination on one of the properties. Though the contamination concerns seem to have been addressed, Boniface managed to thwart the full scale parkland purchase, even as the county executive went ahead and bought part of the land for which he already had authority.

Boniface, Guthrie and other critics of the Havre de Grace land deal, meanwhile, have been conspicuously silent about the recent joint purchase by the county and Aberdeen of property annexed several years ago by Aberdeen near the intersection of Route 40 and Robin Hood Road, in the area that has become known as Rock Glenn.

That property was annexed by Aberdeen to facilitate industrial development, and this led to the construction of the Medline Industries plant. But, the same developer came back sometime later and asked to rezone the remaining industrial property residential, much to the chagrin of Medline officials, who said they didn't feel a bunch of town houses across the street from them would be compatible. Aberdeen city officials, however, approved the rezoning.

Years later, the planned townhouse development was stalled as the economy tanked. Selling the land for recreational fields wouldn't be the most lucrative option if the residential development option remained viable, so the case could be made that the $2.4 million deal with the county helped the developers who were in a pinch. That particular group of developers has been active in local politics for years and has made no secret of it.

With regard to the house in Bel Air, the owner has been shopping it around and has not been able to secure an asking price that is probably at the high end of market value, not surprising in a weak economy. It remains to be seen if a deal will be struck that secures the property for public use at a price that is more in the central range of market value. If it can, it'll be a good deal. But if the price remains at a level where no one is expressing interest, local governments should be hesitant.

The bottom line on governments buying land for parks and recreation is, generally speaking, it's a good idea. When the specifics of the individual deals are discussed, however, there are plenty of details that make a deal look less attractive.

Such details should be examined carefully, but shouldn't necessarily preclude a deal from being made that has the potential to benefit the community for generations to come.

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