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State review could derail Dundalk development

The controversial pending sale of a former school in Baltimore County has received preliminary approval from one state panel but could face stiffer political opposition at the state Board of Public Works

The Interagency Commission on Public School Construction unanimously voted Thursday to recommend the sale to the state board led by Gov. Larry Hogan. But the panel also took the step of noting strong community opposition.

“There are no reasons, therefore, that would warrant IAC hesitation to recommend to the Board of Public Works approval of the property sale,” according to committee records related to the recommendation. “However, because there appears to be considerable community opposition to the sale of the property and the development plans, we recommend that the IAC motion contain language that encourages further discussion among the parties to arrive at a satisfactory solution.”

The recommendation sends the request to the full Board of Public Works, a three-member panel including Hogan and Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot. Both officials have already had stern words for Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz over what the county is doing to reduce the number of schools without air conditioning.

Portions of the committee’s motion were redacted and changed. The final wording is yet not known.

“I’m sorry, until I work out the language and get approval from the IAC, I’d rather not distribute it,”  David Lever, executive director of the committee, wrote in response to an email requesting the language of the final motion. “It will not, however, affect the IAC’s recommendation for approval of the sale.”

The sale of a local government building required the approval of both the committee and the Department of Natural Resource because of state contributions. The state originally invested $135,395 into the project that was built in 1953.

Kamenetz first proposed the sale of a portion of the 27-acre parcel in 2012 as one of three government buildings he sought to have redeveloped and moved onto the county’s property tax rolls.

“The county is presenting a plan where we add vibrant economic opportunity to the Dundalk community and provide new jobs and new venues in which to shop and eat that did not exist there before, and we’re putting property back on the tax rolls,” Kamenetz said.

The county has agreed to sell nearly 16 acres, including the former North Point Junior High School building, to Vanguard Retail Development for $7.6 million. That deal includes cash payments over two years and the developer forgoing a property tax break.

Kamenetz said proceeds of the sale will be used to construct what he referred to as a “21st century community center essentially for free” to replace an older building he described as dilapidated and no longer worth the costs to renovate and maintain.

“It’s a 60-year-old building that is utterly falling apart and could cost $16 million to get it up to code,” Kamenetz said. “It is not ADA-compliant, and the balcony in the (community theater) has been condemned .”

The former school building is home to a county police precinct as well as a community center and theater program that enjoys strong support from surrounding neighborhoods. Residents of the area have organized to fight the sale.

Vanguard plans to build 60,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space as well as 16,000 square feet of office space.

A representative for the developer did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The Board of Public Works could be asked to give its approval to the sale as soon as Oct. 7. An agenda for the board is expected to be posted on Sept. 25.

Franchot, who has been publicly critical of Kamenetz, has been meeting with parents and community groups in Dundalk and is said to be sympathetic to their concerns.

An irritated Hogan, during the board’s most recent meeting, called on Kamenetz to appear before the panel to respond to concerns about a lack of air conditioning within some schools. That could also happen as early as Oct. 7.

The governor, who has a background in real estate development, will likely take two approaches to weighing the proposal to sell and redevelop the school.

Hogan has a business background in real estate development that he frequently applies to government operations and will likely use to assess the county proposal.

But Hogan also has political concerns. Kamenetz is a likely 2018 Democratic contender for governor. And voters in the area where the school is located played a big part in Hogan’s winning Baltimore County in the 2014 election, and they also cast out  five Democrats  from the county council, House of Delegates and state Senate.

Hogan has already threatened to “play hardball” with the count, and possibly restrict state funding over the air conditioning issue.

Matt Clark, a spokesman for Hogan, said the governor has not yet been fully briefed on the proposal.

“He’s certainly aware of the concerns that exist over the project but no decision has been made,” Clark said.