Lot sales, water-access issue end island calm

May 19, 1991|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

In the beginning, there was the land and the water. And it was good.

But then there came to Miller Island offers to sell some of the land nearest the water.

And that was not so good.

Since last March, when Allan and Sharon Godlewski bought the 30-foot-wide parcel next to their waterfront home on Fourth Street, a war has erupted on the island that has pitted neighbor against neighbor, prompted a series of heated community meetings, spawned at least one lawsuit, brought in the Baltimore County government and provided everyone with a lesson in human nature.

At issue is the question of who should have access to the waters off Miller Island, a scenic spit of land that is not really an island but a remote peninsula in southeast Baltimore County that juts into the Back River.

Developed as a community of summer homes in the 1920s, Miller Island -- also known as Millers Island -- is still the kind of place where doors are left open on spring days to catch the breeze off the river and where children play on neighbor's tire swings and family dogs freely roam the streets.

Many island families can trace their roots back to the original settlers who came from places like Highlandtown and Canton to buy summer homes that were later converted to year-round residences.

"This has always been such a nice quiet community. I think it's a shame that what happened had to happen the way it did," said James McKinnon, 74, whose Seventh Street home overlooks the river.

What happened was that Rose Sapperstein, who lives in Baltimore but has deeds to island tracts dating to the 1960s, decided to sell the tiny parcels that lie along the riverfront at the western edge of the 12 cross streets on the island.

Kennard M. Broglie bought his parcel for $1,500 last September. Allan and Sharon Godlewski bought theirs for $2,500 on March 25.

For as long as anyone can remember, the tracts being offered for sale by Mrs. Sapperstein had always been considered common rights of way, maintained by neighbors but open for use by all islanders.

When news of the sales filtered out to the community, residents who lived off the water saw the possibility that their access to the river could be closed off forever.

"Everyone's been under the assumption for the past 60 years here that they had access to the water if they lived on Miller Island. To have that access ripped out from under you is pretty nerve-racking," said Linda Kolb, whose Fourth Street home is about 100 yards from the water.

Mrs. Kolb, who grew up swimming off the tiny beaches at the end of the roads, points out that her deed and those of many of her landlocked neighbors specify that ownership entitles them to "water access."

Mrs. Kolb said that when she found out the parcels were being sold off and could be closed, she contacted county and state officials.

"I said, 'Look, you owe us something. We've been living and paying taxes here all these years and now we've got this #F problem,' " she said.

Councilman Donald R. Mason, D-7th, met with Mrs. Kolb and other homeowners, toured the island, took photographs and brought them back to huddle with county attorneys about what to do.

The solution was simple: Condemn the waterfront parcels, pay the owners fair market value and turn them over to the county Recreation and Parks Department to ensure continued public access.

County Attorney H. Emslie Parks said there was a legal question over whether Mrs. Sapperstein actually holds clear title to the tracts. In the case of the Broglie property, county attorneys say, the county has a deed to the same parcel that dates back to 1969.

The status of the ownership of that tract and access to it are the focus of a suit before Baltimore County Circuit Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr.

Michael McMahon, an assistant county attorney, said the suit focuses not only on who owns the tract but on whether Mr. Broglie had a right to close it to the public when he purchased it last year.

"It would appear that Mrs. Sapperstein's deed attempts to convey a property when she had no right to make that conveyance," Mr. McMahon said. "You can't convey something you don't own."

Mrs. Sapperstein said she did hold a clear title to the Broglie property -- just as she holds title to the other tracts.

"I'm 91 years old, and I don't want to be bothered with all of this," she said. "It belongs to me, and if it belongs to me, I have a right to sell it, right? This whole thing is ridiculous."

Preliminary motions are scheduled to be heard May 28.

In the meantime, Mr. Mason said he hopes to introduce legislation at tomorrow night's council meeting as a first step toward condemnation of all 12 parcels, depending on whether public works officials are able to come up with cost estimates in time.

But many of the neighbors who live along the water are furious about the county's plans and angry with neighbors for bringing in the county government.

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