Weber Avenue property no longer slated for county ownership

Category 25 – Original Writing – Original Story
2nd Place

– by Devin Crum – East County Times –

The 53-acre “prime waterfront” property along Weber Avenue in Essex known as the old Huber property is no longer listed on Baltimore County’s registry of properties and will not be purchased as planned for a county park.

The disappointing news came from Hawthorne Civic Association President Charles Munzert, who also works with the Baltimore County Planning Board, at the March 5 meeting of the Essex-Middle River Civic Council (EMRCC).

The East County Times initially reported on June 13, 2013, that Baltimore County intended to purchase the property along both sides of Weber Avenue for a future public park using $2 million of its own money and $1 million contributed by the state. The money was to come from their respective Program Open Space (POS) funds.

While the owner of the property agreed to the price and terms of sale to the county and was actively working toward that end, the bank holding the loan originally used to purchase the land took issue with the price.

The bank’s loan for the property is $6 million, and the current asking price is approximately $4.2 million, according to Munzert. This was too much for the county to afford, so the deal fell apart.

Once the news came of the bank’s refusal, Baltimore County pulled back its POS funds allocated for the purchase and the state soon followed suit. And some at the EMRCC meeting speculated that the county’s funds had already been repurposed elsewhere, since it recently purchased land for a park in the Sparks area.

The Weber Avenue property was initially purchased for development several years ago by the current owner. And adjacent communities see it as the last piece of pristine waterfront in the immediate area.

The land in question currently consists of 25 acres zoned DR 2 (density residential, 2 homes per acre) and 28 acres zoned DR 3.5. The owner requested all 53 acres to be rezoned DR 5.5 during the last Comprehensive Zoning Map Process (CZMP) in 2012, but the zoning was never changed.

The fear is that, since the county’s purchase fell through, another developer could be willing to take a chance and buy the property since the exact price tag and environmental restrictions on it are all now in the open. And Munzert indicated that, as of now, the property is fair game for any buyer.

However, he also said County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, who represents the area, and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz have not given up on acquiring the tract. “They know how important it is to the east side to get that property.”

Munzert and EMRCC President Bob Bendler stressed that they do not blame Bevins or Kamenetz for the deal collapsing and, in fact, commended them for their efforts throughout the process.

“The bank is the one that invalidated the deal,” Bendler explained, “and I guess they had to look out for their investors.”

But they both agreed that the community needs to continue to press Bevins to find a way to acquire the property, which she says she is doing, according to Munzert.

They have considered trying to get Neighbor Space involved to help purchase the property to preserve it.

Neighbor Space is a nonprofit organization which purchases undeveloped property inside the Urban-Rural Demarcation Line (URDL) to preserve it for open space. The organization owns property all over the county, including a parcel along Bird River Road near the eventual extension of Campbell Boulevard in Middle River.

Regarding the county’s involvement in the purchase, Munzert commented, “Nothing can now be done until next year when the budget comes out. But hopefully we can push that point that we can try to get some of that [POS] money back.”

He offered hope in that everyone initially said they would never get money from the state for the purchase, but it was matching half of the funds contributed by the county.

At the time the deal fell through, the property was being cleaned up by the owner to meet the conditions of the sale to the county before it changed hands, so the county had no money invested in it, which Bendler called “the silver lining if there is one so far.”

“We did get a lot of derelict boats removed, we got [illegal] residents removed, we got a lot of buildings torn down,” he commented. “It’s a much cleaner site than it was two years ago.”

Regardless, “This has got to stay on the hot list to keep an eye on because, if a developer does step forward to buy it, then we’ve got to watch the environmental issues and we’ve got to find out if there’s some way that the county can at least purchase parts of it,” Bendler asserted.