The county has finally moved to buy the 25 acres of wetlands just off Ritchie Highway near Robinson Road that will allow for construction of 60 units of senior housing, but not without starting a sparring match among outgoing county officials and alienating the owner of the land.
Tuesday, at outgoing councilwoman Carole Baker's urging, County Executive O. James Lighthizer issued a rare veto on a measure introduced by outgoing councilman Michael Gilligan to require a public hearing before the county acquired the wetland. Both Lighthizer and Baker suggested Gilligan had proposed the measure to jack up the price of the parcel for his friend, Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad owner Kenneth Pippin, who owns the land.
If the condemnation had gone to a public hearing, and a majority of the council sided with Pippin's claims that the land is worth more than the budgeted $1.077 million, they reasoned, the county would have had to offer more money for the land.
Pippin and Gilligan were infuriated by the moves and accusations.
Gilligan insisted that neither he nor the other five councilmen who voted for the measure had made any deals.
"What are they trying to hide that they don't want to bring it to public hearing?" Gilligan said. "I had nothing to gain by making a deal. I'm on my way out. It's a figment of O.J.'s imagination. Maybe that's the way he's been doing business all these years, but not everybody is as conniving as that."
Pippin said the county's move to condemnation was completely uncalled for and violated his property rights.
"My concern is that property owners have rights and Carole Baker, who wants to build the Carole Baker Memorial Park on my land, has a problem with that and has been misrepresenting my position," he said.
Baker said neither Pippin nor Gilligan had demonstrated any reason the council should have to approve the purchase of the Cool Pond area. Such a hearing could have delayed the county's sale of 10.8 acres of county open space near McKinsey Road to Woodswise, a Severna Park Elderly Housing Corporation, which wants to build high-density senior housing on that site.
The land swap is necessary because the county-owned 10.8-acre parcel near the Severna Park Library was bought using state Program Open Space money. Before any construction could begin, another site of 10.8 acres or more had to be put aside as open space.
"Mr. Pippin, Gilligan and I had a meeting about this before the council vote," Baker said, "and Mr. Pippin quite frankly could not or would not produce any documentation to back up his assertions that his land could be developed and be worth any more than the $1 million the county is offering for it."
Baker, the sole council member to vote against the Gilligan measure, said the amendment was unjustified. She said she didn't want the county held hostage to Pippin's political clout, and that she had personally met with Lighthizer and recommended a veto.
County Attorney Stephen Beard also recommended the veto, saying the amendment unconstitutionally interferes with the executive's right to negotiate for land.
The council already approved the county executive's plans to buy what it called "The Cattail Creek Nature area" when it approved the 1991 budget, Beard said. Now that the sale has fallen through and the county is suing for the land, it is up to a judge or 12-man jury to decide if the county executive is acting fairly.
Pippin vowed to fight and win delay of the condemnation on the grounds that the county did not attempt to negotiate with him for the land before trying to take it from him.
"They've known they've wanted my land since 1986 and they've only met with me twice since then," he said, "and the last time was June 8. I don't think they'll be able to convince anybody that that amounts to a fair attempt to deal with me."