Family's deserted house is not a home -- but they are required to care for it

December 29, 1991|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

Christopher and Susan Grant feel as if they're being ground up by the wheels of government.

In 1988, Baltimore County officials appraised the Grants' house and 9.5 acres and said they were considering buying the property to make way for a lake that would be a centerpiece of the Owings Mills New Town development.

Four years later, the Grants are still waiting.

Their now-vacant house in the 9200 section of Dolfield Road has been broken into a dozen times since September.

They have lost $70,000 worth of appliances and furnishings, their homeowners' insurance is due to be canceled, and police have warned them not to go to the house without a uniformed officer because they might walk in on illicit drug activity and get hurt.

E. Jay Miller, a county police spokesman, said there have been 13 break-ins at the house between Sept. 16 and Nov. 24. He said two to four officers have been assigned to keep a close eye on it and investigate the break-ins.

"The whole thing's been a nightmare," said Susan Grant, a clinical neurolinguistics therapist.

The problem is that the house is on the rim of the Owings Mills New Town development, near where county officials plan to dam up the Red Run to construct a 109-acre lake.

For the plan to become a reality, the county must secure a wetlands permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, and county officials say they will not spend any money to condemn the Grant property until the permit is approved.

The corps has been reviewing the county's permit application since 1985 and there's no word on when it might reach a decision, said Gene L. Neff, Baltimore County director of public works.

Douglas M. Garman, a corps spokesman, said engineers are waiting for the county to respond to a request for more information. He said there is no deadline for reaching a decision, adding that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency also must review the application.

All this is adding to the frustration felt by the Grants, who bought the house for $155,000 in July 1980 because of its then-pristine surroundings.

They knew about county plans to build Interstate 795, the Northwest Expressway, nearby but saw that as a temporary inconvenience.

They stayed in the community, despite blasting for construction of the expressway and the Owings Mills Mall "that felt like we were living in an earthquake zone," and despite commercial development nearby that left them feeling isolated, Mrs. Grant said.

But in June 1983, the county released a preliminary master plan for the Owings Mills New Town, and the Grants learned that their property would be swept up by the Red Run Lake and the surrounding high-rise residential and commercial development proposed for wooded tracts all around their rustic two-story, frame house.

The plan, approved by the County Council the following year, rezoned the property for high density residential development, which would mean 80 housing units per acre. But in 1988, the Grants received a letter from the Baltimore County Bureau of Land Acquisition asking permission to appraise the property.

"Upon completion and review of the appraisals . . . you will be contacted by a representative of this office who will explain the acquisition and who will offer you just compensation," the Feb. 16, 1988, letter said.

Mr. Grant, who is a real estate investor, took that to mean the county eventually would buy the house, and the couple began building a house on Cross Creek Court in Phoenix to move to after the purchase.

"We knew we'd have to move eventually, but we figured we'd stay as long as possible and we'd see what happened," he said.

The Grants and their young son moved in July 1989, and they rented out the Owings Mills house on a month-to-month basis.

The problems began shortly after Labor Day, when the tenants moved out and the criminals moved into the isolated home -- taking furniture from throughout the house.

Now, after many break-ins, the house is boarded up but remains a target. Mr. Grant returned to cut the grass about a month ago and found a plastic bag filled with cocaine in an upstairs bathroom.

He said he has no choice but to use the $70,000 due from an insurance settlement from the most serious break-in to repair the house and rent it out again, even though chances are it will be bulldozed.

He wants the county to buy the property, or decide once and for all if it is ever going to condemn it.

But Mr. Neff said the county never made an offer for the house and that a letter notifying the property owners of an appraisal is only a first step toward condemnation.

He said the Grants, like any landowner, are free to sell the land to the highest bidder.

Mr. Grant acknowledged that he could eventually make a tidy profit on the sale of the property, which as part of the new town expansion was zoned for high-rise development. The county appraisal in 1988 found the property to be worth $800,000, he said.

But he said that he cannot negotiate a decent price with the possibility of county condemnation hanging over the property and that county officials refuse to say when they may reach a decision on condemnation.

In the meantime, the Grants continue to pay taxes on a property they cannot use, and cannot see without a police escort and must spend $75,000 to make it habitable knowing it may never be inhabited again.

"We're in a state of permanent limbo here," Mrs. Grant said. "The whole thing is just unbelievable."

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