A deal to preserve a 32-acre parcel in Ellicott City for parkland was heralded last year as a rare joint venture among unlikely partners.
But the oral agreement announced a year ago by the Howard County government, state officials, a Columbia builder and an Ellicott City community has fizzled.
Development now seems likely to occur on the land in an environmentally sensitive area near the Patapsco River and Patapsco Valley State Park.
In the months following the announcement last June, Columbia developer William J. Miller added a series of conditions to the sale that made it impossible to seal the pact, government officials and residents contend.
"He's playing 'Let's make a deal,' " said Sally S. Bright, a member of the Patapsco Heights-Church Road Association, said of the developer.
"We have met his needs every step of the way and it's still not enough for him. He's let a lot of people down, made a lot of people angry," said Bright, whose association had worked for four years to spare the parcel from development.
The community association prematurely celebrated the land deal with a ceremony attended by Miller and county and state officials to announce that the developer was agreeing to preserve the land, for $1.5 million. The state and county each agreed to put up $750,000.
Now, Bright fears that development of the 32-acre parcel and another 139 acres in the area owned by Miller's Howard Oaks Inc. would harm the Patuxent River and "destroy the scenic integrity" of the neighboring Ellicott City Historic District.
David S. Carney, Miller's attorney, said the property now is worth considerably more than $1.5 million, and he noted that Miller never signed a written agreement to sell the land. He denied that Miller backed out of the deal, saying the deal just never came together.
"Our understanding was that if the county could complete the subdivision work and settle by July 1990, we would sell for one-million-five," Carney said, adding that changes in zoning four years ago reduced from 118 to 60 the number of homes that could be built on his other land in the area.
Carney said his client had wanted assurances that he would get higher density zoning for his other property in the area.
The first sign of trouble surfaced even before the ceremony. In a May 4, 1990, letter to County Administrator Buddy Roogow, Miller said he would sell the property in exchange for cooperation from the county and state to restore the higher density zoning.
Roogow said density had not been considered a major sticking point, but that it eventually became one of many issues Miller used to forestall the sale.
"From my viewpoint, Mr. Miller has not attempted to reach a final settlement with the county," he said.
He added that nearly $47,000 an acre was unusually high for land that would remain free from development, but that the county and state were willing to pay it because the land would serve an important environmental purpose, adding 32 acres to the state park.
County Executive Charles I. Ecker said he was still hopeful that an agreement could be worked out. He said his administration would make another effort to buy the land.
Carney, however, said Miller was looking to either develop the land or sell it to another developer.
"It's not able to be purchased for $1.5 million in 1991," he said.