Nobles Hill Estates entangled in suit among heirs Questionable DEEDS

March 06, 1994|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Sun Staff Writer

On cold mornings before dawn when Kathleen Squires feeds her thoroughbreds in a historic barn south of Darlington, she forgets the lawyers and appeals and thick court files and savors the serenity of 10 open acres overlooking Deer Creek.

The secretary and her husband, Joe, a commercial renovation contractor, bought land in Harford County more than three years ago to build a house like no other, one they could share with Mrs. Squires' horses. Inside the old barn, they envisioned a three-story home with lofts and huge windows, one floor above the the tack room and horses' stalls they've built so far. Mr. Squires designed it himself.

But for now, standing in a dusty, cavernous space meant to be their living room, gazing out the barn door toward two new custom homes on the hill, they can do no more than plan because no bank will give them a construction loan.

The Squires aren't the only ones affected by the legal morass entangling Nobles Hill Estates, located in the historic area of Nobles Mill.

Their neighbors on the hill can't refinance their loans. And they can't think of selling. Worse off are the developers, retired Army Lt. Col. Frank E. Duncan and his wife, Sharon. The couple, saddled with mounting interest on their mortgage and tens of thousands of dollars in development costs, has been forced into bankruptcy. Yet they're blocked from selling any more lots and are forced to turn buyers away from prime creek-side property.

The subdivision's plight stems from a title dispute that has grown ever more tangled in the past five years. It's a far cry from what the Duncans envisioned when they bought the farm in 1989, intending to carve 86 acres into eight parcels.

But Edward L. Garono, whose parents once owned the land, argues he never got his rightful chance to buy property he wants to continue to farm.

Serious title disputes are rare. Jeffrey M. Dreifuss, a Columbia title attorney, says his company has paid title insurance claims only four or five times in 20 years. Often, claims involve forgery, fraud, missing heirs or errors or oversights during title searches.

But even buyers in an established subdivision face the possibility that someone could claim rights to the title. "Sometimes people say, 'There's no risk because I know the guy who's selling to me, and he's the first owner," Mr. Dreifuss says. ++ "Obviously, he's the first owner since the property was subdivided for a house, but who knows what came before?" Few cases become as sticky as the one over Nobles Hill Estates, which has dragged on in lawsuits and appeals that reached the state's highest court in January.

The case also highlights the misunderstanding over just what protection title insurance affords. The Duncans thought their policy would cover any damages resulting from loss of the use of their property as well as of the property itself. They quickly learned otherwise.

"We invested all we had in that property, and we had people lined up to buy those lots," Mrs. Duncan says, sitting in her kitchen on the nearby 95-acre farm she and her husband fear they'll lose next. "This has destroyed credit we had taken pains to build. You don't know where you're going or what your future's going to be. The thought of having to start over is terrifying."

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How it all started

Long before the Duncans began paving a road for the subdivision, the 86 acres south of winding Nobles Mill Road produced grain and beef cattle. Louis and Margaret Garono farmed it in the 1950s and 1960s as part of 700 acres they owned throughout the county. After their death in the 1970s, the land went to their five children, each of whom could take title to a parcel upon turning 25. "There were five farms, and everyone was supposed to get one farm each," said one daughter, Mary Jane Garono Shivers.

A brother, Peter, got one of the farms in 1984. The Garono children then signed an agreement stipulating that any who wanted to sell would have to first consider offers from the other siblings.

The title dispute centers on that agreement. Edward Garono claims it remains valid. The Duncans and their title company, Stewart Title Guaranty Co., claim that Edward Garono's right expired in 1986, when he and his three sisters divided the remaining land, giving Mrs. Shivers the 86 acres. So far the courts -- up to a December ruling by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals -- agree. The Court of Appeals may decide within the next few weeks whether to hear the case.

In 1988, Mrs. Shivers agreed to sell her property for $300,000 to the Duncans, who several years earlier had been able to realize their dream of retiring on a farm by buying one near Bel Air, subdividing part of it and selling 12 lots. They made out so well financially that they went in search of more land to develop.

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