A group of South Carroll residents is taking the county commissioners to court for buying farmland in Union Bridge for $850,000 - more than six times the property's appraised value - for construction of a road and railway spur.
Eldersburg residents Pamela Seiter, Nimrod Davis and Angela Lee will ask Carroll County Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. today to rescind the sale and issue an injunction to prevent the commissioners from taking possession of the property.
"I understand the road has to be in place to relieve congestion in Union Bridge, but I still don't understand why we as taxpayers had to pay so much for this property," said Seiter.
The commissioners paid brothers Sidney Darrell Lease Jr. and David Vincent Lease more than $32,000 an acre for 10.6 acres and the right to use an additional 15.7 acres - most of which is zoned for industrial use. The price per acre is nearly twice what industrial land in northwestern Carroll typically commands.
Two appraisers studied the parcels. Bernard F. Semon & Corp. in Towson found them to be worth $133,425, and John V. McDonough Associates Inc. in Reisterstown valued them at $121,500.
"Disparity in the difference between the appraised value and the purchase price is contrary to public interest and is arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion by the commissioners," the plaintiffs wrote in their complaint.
Board President Julia Walsh Gouge said she could not comment on the case. Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier could not be reached.
County Attorney Laurell Taylor said Carroll would oppose the injunction and would file a motion to dismiss the case. She would not comment further because of the pending litigation.
Gouge and Frazier have said they objected to the price during negotiations. The commissioners voted Aug. 14 to buy the property, with Frazier and Dell, who played a key role in negotiations, voting in favor and Gouge abstaining.
The land the county purchased will contain a road and a Maryland Midland Inc. railway spur that will serve Lehigh Portland Cement Co. and divert train and truck traffic that now rumbles through Union Bridge. The cement maker is spending $260 million on an expansion that will nearly double the size of the plant.
The land the county purchased for the one-mile-long project - known as Shepherds Mill Road - lies at the heart of a 221-acre tract that the Lease brothers bought for $350,000, land records show.
"Our hope is that the court will say that the sale was improper, rescind it and order the county to proceed with condemnation," said Richard Nicewicz, the lawyer who is representing the plaintiffs.
Also named as defendants in the lawsuit are the Lease brothers, the cement company and the railway. The plaintiffs allege the sale "unjustly enriches the sellers ... and the future users of the property, Lehigh Portland Cement Company and Maryland Midland Railway, Inc." However, the lawsuit does not seek action against the companies. It only asks that the commissioners be barred from taking possession of the land and that the Lease brothers "transfer the proceeds of the sale to the jurisdiction of the court."
Paul D. Denton, president and chief executive officer of the railway, refused to comment last night. David H. Roush, plant manager for Lehigh, could not be reached. A woman answering the telephone at the Lease brothers' farm hung up on a reporter.
The hearing before Beck occurs as the county ethics commission is reviewing a complaint, filed by Lee last month, that challenges the Union Bridge land deal. The ethics panel is expected to discuss the issue Nov. 15.