By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun
10:15 PM EDT, July 14, 2013
For three months, Baltimore County officials have been weighing proposals from developers to buy three parcels of county-owned land, in Towson, Dundalk and Randallstown.
But county officials are releasing little information about the deliberations — they won't even say who serves on the committee evaluating the eight bids that were received.
That has triggered criticism from some residents and former officials.
"It belongs to the people," Karen Cruz, a community activist in Dundalk, said of the North Point Government Center and its recreation fields, one of the sites up for sale. "It doesn't belong to the politicians. And there's been no input at all."
Bob Staab, a former state delegate who led the county's parks and recreation programs in the late 1980s and early 1990s and is a Dundalk resident, agrees. He said residents have been left with too few details of the plan.
"They don't communicate with the public at all," he said of county officials. "That really bothers me."
Officials in County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's administration defend the process, and say they will provide details when the evaluation committee finishes. The plan is to use money raised from the land sales to replace the government facilities and to fund school improvements.
The county has not revealed the names of people on the committee because officials want to protect the group from outside influence, said Don Mohler, Kamenetz's chief of staff.
"We don't want anybody on the committee being pressured," he said. "There has never been a hint of impropriety regarding the procurement process in Baltimore County. We protect its integrity."
Once the evaluation committee has made its recommendations, bid documents will be released, Mohler said.
"Everything will be transparent once they conclude their work," he said.
The county announced plans to put three sites up for bid in December — the 28-acre government center site, the Towson fire station and a police substation in Randallstown — but has not released any details of the proposals submitted by developers in April, turning down a Public Information Act request from The Baltimore Sun for bid documents.
Even before the bids were received, the plan got off to a rocky start when Towson residents criticized a proposal to relocate the fire station to a local park to make way for the sale. Kamenetz ultimately found another location for the station to move.
More recently, the controversy has centered on the Dundalk site, which residents use for a variety of sports and arts programs, including chorus practices and a performing arts program for people with disabilities.
In a recent letter to county officials, former County Councilman Joe Bartenfelder called the county's handling of the process "cavalier and reckless."
"Land owned by county residents, county taxpayers, should not be arbitrarily pulled out from under people who have been living in that community and using those facilities for years without allowing them to be part of the process," wrote Bartenfelder, who ran against Kamenetz in the 2010 Democratic primary.
Cruz and other Dundalk residents have attended County Council meetings to urge council members — who will make the final decision on whether to approve the land sales — to stop the sale of the government center. They have complained that the county has not held community meetings or listened to their concerns about the plan.
At the council's most recent meeting, Cruz called on Councilman John Olszewski Sr. to recuse himself, saying he is "best friends" with developer John Vontran, who is part of a group bidding on the property.
Olszewski, a Dundalk Democrat, said after the meeting that Cruz mischaracterized his relationship with Vontran.
"I'm friends with a lot of people. He's not my best friend. My best friend is my wife," he said. "He's a friend, but he's not my best friend."
While the county has not revealed the bidders, some have spoken for themselves about their proposals. Vontran said the plan suggested by his group would involve building restaurants and big-box retail at the government center site, and moving ball fields and recreational facilities to the former Seagrams plant, which he owns.
He said critics "have an ax to grind with the administration" and don't represent the larger community.
"There's a ton of support down here," he said of his pitch. "We'd like to give Dundalk the retail that it deserves."
Only one other developer bid on the Dundalk site, and they have also come forward with details about their plan: Vanguard, which wants to build retail and restaurants at the site, and preserve the recreation fields there.
Either developer would be required to build a new recreation center for the community, under the county's bid terms.
Olszewski said the community needs to let the process play out. Since the process was announced, he has said he will not support any plan if the county doesn't replace the recreational facility and ball fields.
But Bartenfelder says the county should already have shared more information and held meetings with community members.
"It just seems like no one is listening and paying attention to what people who live there are saying," he said. "They're getting more and more upset because it seems like their concerns are falling on deaf ears."
The former councilman said he also questions the financial underpinnings of the plan and wonders how there will be enough money left over for school improvements once the facilities are relocated.
Another former county recreation and parks director, John Weber, questioned why the county would sell such a heavily used public facility. Weber, who left that post in 2002 and lives in Dundalk, said he fears the sale would set a "horrible precedent" that could make it easier for officials to sell public land used for recreation.
"Conceptually, I think the county's making a really bad move," he said. "I think it's a mistake of tremendous proportions."
Mohler said the evaluation committee is "getting closer to an announcement."
"The committee has taken this job very, very seriously and has a lot of information to evaluate," he said.
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