Baltimore County's dilemma on parkland Condemnation: Government's use of eminent domain is becoming a last resort.

May 23, 1998

BALTIMORE COUNTY is in a bind when it comes to parkland and open space.

Some less-developed counties have stockpiled land for future public use. In Baltimore County, however, previous administrations failed to do this adequately. Today, there is a severe shortage of recreational facilities and open space in developed areas of the county, especially in the new communities of White Marsh, Owings Mills and still-to-be-built Honeygo. Meanwhile, land prices are bound to rise as growth areas are built out.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger is trying to buy potential parkland. His problem is that landowners do not want to settle for appraised values when they believe their land has lucrative development potential. They want the county to pay above market value -- which, by law, it cannot do without County Council approval, and then only with good reason.

The Ruppersberger administration has chosen in a few instances to use its power to condemn property. It is a controversial tactic because parkland tends to be viewed as a less crucial public need than, say, roads, despite pressing environmental and aesthetic concerns and suburbanites' demand for recreational facilities. Condemnation is justified in certain circumstances in Baltimore County because the government is running out of choices.

A few months ago, the county erred when it targeted a farm in the Honeygo area whose owner wasn't willing to sell at any price. Officials wisely backed down.

Two other potential condemnation proceedings -- one involving 95 acres at Greenspring Valley and Falls roads, the other involving 26 acres near Honeygo -- are quite different. They involve landowners who want to sell and develop their property. The sticking point is price.

The owners of the Honeygo land, for instance, paid $375,000 for 25 acres two months ago. They say that the county's $385,000 offer is an insult and that the land is worth $1.5 million. If condemnation proceeds, it will be up to the courts to decide a fair price.

It is not hard to see why speculators prefer to hold on to their land and wait for prices to escalate.

Nor, considering that we are a nation protective of private property rights, is it hard to see why the Ruppersberger administration's tactics strike some as unpalatable.

But the options for solving this problem are dwindling. Without the condemnation option, the county would be forced to do without recreational facilities and green space, or to pay dearly for them.

Pub Date: 5/23/98

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