Suit against Carroll Co. over land deal is dismissed

Taxpayers had argued officials paid too much

April 21, 2001|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Saying any remedy should come at the ballot box, a Carroll County judge dismissed a taxpayers' suit yesterday against the county commissioners for paying substantially more than the appraised value of farmland needed to alleviate truck and train traffic in Union Bridge.

The ruling by Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. ends the courts' role in the dispute.

At issue was the commissioners' Oct. 10 purchase from Sidney Darrell Lease Jr. and David Vincent Lease of 10.6 acres, plus the right to use another 15.7 acres, for $850,000 -- more than six times the appraised value, as reported by The Sun. Construction is expected to begin next month on the first leg of the new Shepherd's Mill Road.

The arguments yesterday ranged from whether the appraised value should be included in a legal advertisement, to the U.S. Constitution's separation of powers and freedom of the press.

"The citizens were ... fed false information about the need to purchase the property at the exorbitant price," said Richard S. Nacewicz, the lawyer representing Angela Lee, Nimrod Davis and Pamela Seiter, three South County residents.

The purchase was properly advertised with an opportunity for citizen comment, said Assistant County Attorney Timothy C. Burke, adding that "the county commissioners take exception to allegations of fraud and deceit."

"It was not until the press revealed the disparity between the price and the appraised value that the citizens knew," Nacewicz argued, saying the Founding Fathers saw the press as "a watchdog over the business of government."

"I bet the founders would like to have that one back," Beck commented.

Ruling from the bench later, the judge said the commissioners acted legally and shouldn't be second-guessed by the judiciary.

"How much is too much when considering a public project is in the mind of the beholder," Beck said. "They have the possibility of paying the ultimate price at the ballot box two or four years later ... if the citizens feel the public project cost too much."

Nacewicz said his clients will not appeal dismissal of the lawsuit, which also named as defendants the Maryland Midland Railway, Lehigh Portland Cement Co. and the Lease brothers.

The attorneys for the railroad and for the cement company said their clients won't benefit from the new road: They already have rail and road access but agreed to relocate to bypass the town of about 1,000 residents. Lehigh's current plant expansion means increased numbers and hours of operation for cement trucks and railroad cars carrying cement throughout the region -- projections now being reviewed by the State Highway Administration.

Representing the Lease brothers, Jack A. Gullo Jr. argued that the lawsuit was filed too late -- after the money was in the bank -- and that the Leases were entitled to drive a hard bargain for land they hadn't wanted to sell.

Outside the courtroom, Lee said, "It disturbed me greatly that the judge from the bench made the comment that the Founding Fathers would like to take back the powers of the freedom of the press. This has frightening implications."

"I think it's been an exercise here that's totally unnecessary," Commissioner Donald I. Dell said about the lawsuit. Should he seek re-election in 2002, Dell said, he would not worry about the allegations.

"I don't give a damn," he said. "Consider the source."

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