Roger Fell, who lives on Peach Orchard Road in Dundalk, strolls across his back yard, walks through his rear gate and steps proudly onto a grassy strip of land between his fence and his pier.
The land this week became the newest part of his back yard. He didn't buy it or steal it. Baltimore County officials apparently forgot they owned the land. And, when a 1978 survey by county officials revealed that this land -- just under an acre -- had been improved and was being used by Mr. Fell and his neighbors, the county did not try to reclaim it.
Instead, the county started charging some residents of Peach Orchard Road higher taxes for having waterfront property, even though the county has held legal title to the property since 1955.
On Monday, a county Circuit Court judge ruled that, in effect, the county had abandoned the land and that Mr. Fell and seven of his neighbors -- because they took care of it and improved it -- now rightfully owned it.
"By their actions and inactions, the county has abandoned the land," said Judge J. Norris Byrnes. "The county has treated the land as if it belongs to the lot owners."
It was a courtroom victory that Mr. Fell and the seven neighbors, who joined him two years ago in suing Baltimore County, had hoped for but didn't quite expect.
H. Emslie Parks, the county attorney, said his office has not decided whether to appeal. The county has 30 days to decide.
"It may be that we dropped the ball back then," he said, referring to the 1978 land survey. "If we did, then it might be best" not to appeal.
The issue of who first owned the land came up several years ago when one neighbor, Edward Auld, built a $20,000 bulkhead and pier, after buying what he thought was a waterfront home.
"He got all the permits and everything, and he built it," recalled Mr. Fell, a 46-year-old Baltimore Gas & Electric employee. "Then Baltimore County came along afterward and said: 'Oh, no. You can't do that. That's not your property.' "
County officials ordered Mr. Auld and other neighbors with piers to tear them down within 30 days.
"That's when we hired a lawyer," said Mr. Fell. "He got an injunction" preventing the piers from being torn down.
The neighborhood, called Murray Point, was once a peach orchard owned by George Murray, who sold the land in the early 1900s to Bethlehem Steel Corp., Mr. Fell said. The steel company built a small housing development, but kept title to the land. It designated one large parcel as a neighborhood park and gave it to Baltimore County in 1951. This land was never contested.
After Hurricane Hazel devastated the Baltimore area in 1954, and eroded part of the remaining waterfront land, the company gave the county that land in October 1955.
Many residents never knew that this land transfer had taken place, said Mr. Fell. All they knew was that no one except themselves seemed interested in filling in the low-lying property, cutting its grass, or building expensive bulkheads and piers.
"Back in the '50s, waterfront property around here was not desirable," said Mr. Fell. "The story I got, it was marsh weed all the way up.
With the court victory behind them, the residents are now nervously waiting to see if the county will appeal the decision.
"I don't know why they would appeal," said Mr. Fell, who noted that he and the other homeowners so far have paid roughly $16,000 in legal fees. "They can't use it. It's no good for them, but they can now collect taxes on all of it."