After 18 years of diligent work, Wendy and Thomas Meredith are waiting to become Baltimore County's newest millionaires.
For more than a year they've waited. Now they're losing patience.
The Merediths own 18 buildings at the Villages of Tall Trees apartments in Essex. They, like dozens of other property owners at the faded World War II-era complex, have been negotiating sales agreements since April 1999 with county officials, who want to demolish the structures and replace them with a park.
The project is part of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's ambitious east-side revitalization plan. But the Merediths, other landlords and condominium owners at Tall Trees complain that their dealings with county officials have been replete with delays, unanswered telephone calls and attempts to wear down the property owners so they'll accept less for their properties.
These perceptions of trickery have further eroded some east-siders' confidence in government and led the property owners to take the county to court.
"We are in our fourth contract with the county and I am not clear when this will end," said Wendy Meredith. The county's offer of $2.7 million for their 142 units is fair, she said, but Meredith and her husband will incur added expenses through lost rent as tenants vacate apartments that cannot be re-rented before the deal becomes final.
Friends joke about the Merediths' looming financial windfall, but she notes that upgrading the buildings and tending to tenant needs for nearly two decades has been a huge commitment that has taken a human toll.
"Having apartments is a seven-day-a-week job with few vacations," she said. "When a unit opens up, I'll have 60 to 80 calls a day. We'll be happy when we can close this deal with the county, but I will be equally glad when the telephone stops ringing."
Shirley Murphy, chief of the county Bureau of Land Acquisition, said her department is moving forward with negotiations as quickly as possible. She rejected allegations that the county is drawing out the negotiations to frustrate owners and force them to lower their expectations.
"This is a very time-consuming process and we have four people in my office handling Tall Trees, myself included," Murphy said."
Tall Trees, built in 1943 and originally called Mars Estates, is a development of neo-Georgian brick apartment blocks with 840 units. The blocks are arranged in symmetrical groups bordered by streets with aeronautical names such as Doolittle, Rickenbacker and Seversky. Mars was one of five high-density housing complexes built for tens of thousands of wartime workers at the nearby Glenn L. Martin aircraft factories.
But when the war ended, workers returned home, and places like Mars Estates became ghost towns until they were once again filled with families of returning servicemen. When they moved on, apartments on the east side became home to government-subsidized renters, and the area declined.
Ruppersberger's plan for Essex-Middle River calls for hundreds of single-family homes to be built, forming a stable economic belt around a waterfront destination on the headwaters of the Middle River. That destination is envisioned as a tourist spot featuring restaurants, shops and new docking space where three older marinas now stand.
Although Ruppersberger's bid to expand the county's condemnation authority to assemble land for the east-side project was rejected this month in a referendum, the county does have the power of eminent domain over the 55-acre Tall Trees site. But some property owners contend the county should have stayed out of the real estate business and gone through condemnation proceedings in court, where the owners feel they would have gotten a better deal.
The Merediths hold the most properties at Tall Trees, but others, including condo owner Patricia Singh, feel as if they're playing poker with a card shark.
She is a single working mother with what she says are comfortable mortgage payments of $345 a month. Last April, she heard that the county wanted to tear down Tall Trees.
"Four months ago I went to Towson, and they offered me two figures, $30,000 and $33,000," said Singh, who still owes $36,000 on her $44,000 mortgage. "It was final. They would give me another $17,000 to relocate, but I would have to buy another Baltimore County property at a much higher mortgage rate. I don't drive, and have to live on a bus line for work. I haven't heard a word since then.
"I'm not greedy, but the county is not giving us a fair shake," said Singh, a federal worker.
In June, Tall Tree owners filed a $40 million suit in Circuit Court against Baltimore County, alleging that the county's method of purchasing properties is cheating them out of the value they would otherwise realize in court condemnation proceedings. Such a tactic, the plaintiffs say, drives down the value of their properties.