At the heart of the latest infighting in the Harford County government, between its executive and a council member, is seven acres of undeveloped, partially wooded land in Bel Air that is a football toss from Interstate 95.

The land is what remains of the Cassilly family farm, property that family members have owned since the 1800s. County Executive Bob Cassilly’s great-grandparents were the original tenders of the land. His predecessors grew tomatoes back when tomato canneries thrived in the county. Once fresh produce became more readily available, the farm shifted to corn and cattle.

By the time Cassilly was born in 1958, the county was changing quickly.

“I can remember as a very small child sitting in the wagon behind a tractor, driving through those fields,” Cassilly recalled. “Later, as a boy, I remember watching a bulldozer destroy the family farm.”

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Cassilly’s father, Robert R. Cassilly Jr., never farmed again, getting a job testing tanks at the Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The state purchased his land — the family did not really have a choice in the matter and was paid the going price for agricultural land at the time — so it could build a new interstate through the property. The family was left with two sections, one on either side of the expressway. Relatives sold off the portion on the east side decades ago, but only recently got around to selling the portion on the west side.

Which is where the ongoing friction reemerged between Cassilly’s office and Councilman Aaron Penman, who asserted that Cassilly signed a land-use document that facilitated the sale of the land. Penman characterized the act as a conflict of interest.

Cassilly’s office released a statement Wednesday calling Penman’s assertion “an untrue and outrageous claim attacking the character and integrity of Harford County Executive Bob Cassilly.”

“County Executive Cassilly did not review and did not sign this plat,” the statement also read.

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The executive explained Thursday that the document, which he characterized as run-of-the-mill and routine, was reviewed and signed by the county’s director of administration, Robert McCord. Signatures of both men appear on the document, although it appears that McCord signed Cassilly’s name on his behalf and included his initials next to the surrogate signature.

All steps pertaining to the document were done by the book, Cassilly said. Normally, it is the job of the county executive to sign real estate plats, which are plans for land use that are reviewed by engineers and the county’s health department.

“There was no rush, no special treatment,” said Cassilly, who gave the responsibility of the document to McCord because it involved property connected to Cassilly’s family and he did not want to risk any conflicts of interest.

“There’s a stack of these [plat documents] in my secretary’s desk right now,” he said. “This is the most common type of plat document that I as a county executive sign.”

His office does not weigh on the merits of real estate plans, it just approves them, he said. Asked if the process was a rubber stamp, he used the term “ministerial,” indicating that saying no to a plan would be unusual.

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Penman maintains Cassilly overstepped his bounds by putting his name on the document, regardless of who actually signed it, and that his family stands to benefit from the sale being approved.

“It was steamrolled and rushed through,” Penman said. “The whole thing is disappointing. I receive issues and concerns from my constituency, and my job is to help maintain the balance of power.”

Cassilly said the land belongs to the generation above him, the aunts and uncles who hung on to the land long after it was useful.

“This is a headache we didn’t need,” he said.

The seven acres was originally divided into eight lots, but the plat review determined the soil could support only three septic systems and therefore only three lots, Cassilly said, making them less valuable to the family. The county’s sewer system, while nearby, has not been expanded to include the family land.

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“If I was going to be a slimy guy, I’d introduce a new plan to expand water and sewer,” he said. “That would make that land more valuable.”

The parcel is listed for $400,000, but Cassilly said they will likely receive about half the amount.

The land document is just the latest bone of contention between the two sides.

Last fall, Cassilly called for Penman’s removal from the council after he was rehired by the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, citing a conflict of interest. Penman retired from the sheriff’s department when he was elected to the council in 2022. Conflicts between the two go back at least a year. Last May, Penman alleged Cassilly misappropriated funds, and in August accused the executive of wiretapping.

He has been at odds with the sheriff’s office since early 2022, when Sheriff Jeff Gahler blamed Cassilly for stalling renovations of a new training academy and precinct house.

Hugo Kugiya is a reporter for the Express Desk and has formerly reported for the Associated Press, Newsday, and the Seattle Times.

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