The county commissioners used their power of condemnation to benefit a Finksburg developer by voting in February to purchase a tiny piece of property, according to testimony in Carroll Circuit Court yesterday.
When Finksburg farmer Aaron Green could not persuade the High Ridge Homeowners Association to sell him the property adjacent to his 135-acre farm, he turned to Commissioner Donald I. Dell.
Mr. Green and John T. Maguire II, his attorney, asked the commissioner -- who went to high school with Mr. Green's father -- if there was anything the county could do to help.
There was, they were told, and in closed session in February, the county commissioners voted 2-1 to condemn the 50-foot by 15-foot parcel at the end of High Ridge Drive.
Attorneys for the county and the homeowners association were in court yesterday in the first part of the county's attempt to condemn the property. In trying to convince Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. that the county should be barred from buying the land, association lawyers presented testimony showing how the county's action would benefit only one person -- Mr. Green.
Mr. Green wanted the property so that High Ridge Drive -- which ends in a cul-de-sac near the edge of his property -- could be extended into his proposed 21-lot luxury home development.
Mr. Dell confirmed that Mr. Green and Mr. Maguire visited him in spring 1991 to ask what the county could do, but he denied any impropriety.
"I think we made the right decision," the commissioner president said after spending 45 minutes on the witness stand. "I didn't know Aaron, but I did go to school with his father. The vote was not improper, and I feel we made the right decision."
Attorneys for the homeowners association disagree. As their key witness in the day-long hearing yesterday, they presented the lone dissenter in the condemnation vote, Commissioner Elmer C. Lippy Jr.
"Do you think this condemnation was made for a private rather than public purpose?" asked association attorney David K. Bowersox.
"It's bad enough when you serve 130,000 people by condemning property, but it's worse when it benefits just one man," the commissioner responded.
"And that man is?" the attorney asked.
"That man is Mr. Aaron Green," Mr. Lippy said.
One issue mulled by the commissioners as they considered the condemnation last year was the cost to Mr. Green of gaining access to his property from another road. Mr. Dell agreed that if Mr. Green could not get access to High Ridge Drive, his development costs would be needlessly higher.
To residents of the 80-home High Ridge community, the dead-end roadway is important.
"We bought our homes with the thought that High Ridge Drive would remain a cul-de-sac," said E. Davis Bond, secretary of the homeowners association. "We don't oppose Mr. Green developing his land, but we don't want High Ridge Drive becoming a through road."
County Attorney Charles W. "Chuck" Thompson Jr. defended the condemnation vote, and yesterday he tried to convince Judge Burns that the county deserves to purchase the property.
He argued that the planners who mapped out High Ridge in the 1970s mistakenly concluded that High Ridge Drive was to end in a cul-de-sac. He said the county's master plan called for the road to be extended and, therefore, the county wasn't acting solely in behalf of Mr. Green in condemnning the property.
Mr. Thompson, in his cross-examination of Mr. Lippy, also attempted to point out that in the past the county has condemnned land that benefits single landowners, most notably companies.
He also asked Mr. Lippy whether affordable housing -- apparently referring to the lower costs Mr. Green could charge if given access to his property at High Ridge Drive -- was a county goal.
Mr. Bowersox scoffed at applying the term "affordable housing" to Mr. Green's development. The land is in an agriculturally zoned area, which requires minimum one-acre lots. Homes in the area have a market value of $200,000 to $250,000.
Judge Burns has given both sides until Dec. 23 to submit written closing arguments. Should the judge grant the county's request to condemn the land, another trial will be held to determine how much the county should pay the homeowners association.
Should Judge Burns deny the county's request, Mr. Thompson said the county might appeal.