Land buy ends fight over use of parcel

Families pool funds to purchase 2.5 acres

October 07, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Families who live in Ellicott City's Hollifield Station neighborhood threw themselves into a consuming 20-month fight against commercial development in their neighborhood and won. Now they're taking another extraordinary step to guarantee that they'll never have to do it again.

After a Howard County board rejected plans for a large day care center in their residential community, a dozen families pooled their money this summer and did what most residents involved in zoning fights only dream of: They bought the contested property.

"You know someone else would have stepped up and put a contract in from a commercial user, so instead of just fighting battle after battle, I thought it made the most sense for us to buy the property," said Michael Bender, who lives near the parcel zoned for residential use. "That way we control it."

But they're not intending to control the 2.5 acres at Rogers Avenue and Old Frederick Road by keeping it.

Last week they put it on the market with an asking price of $329,000 and a restriction they believe will protect their neighborhood: Only one house will be allowed on the land.

Howard's planning director, Joseph W. Rutter Jr., can't think of a similar example anywhere else in the county, where land prices are spiraling upward and developers are generally eager to hang on to what they have.

Hollifield Station's community project is one way to be certain of what happens to the parcel, he said.

"It's difficult to do, but you sure got to give people credit for putting their money where their mouth is," he said.

Bender, who leases office space and sells commercial property in downtown Baltimore for a living, got the idea to buy the land the last night of May, moments after the county Board of Appeals said no to the day care center for 200 children.

Residents believed the facility would overwhelm their neighborhood with traffic, and opposing the proposal took more than a thousand hours of work.

Bender said it didn't make sense to assume no one else had designs on the site.

"I'm going to buy the property," he told a neighbor that night, as they stood in the parking lot of the county government complex.

Ryland Homes, which developed Hollifield Station and owned the land, was willing to sell, Bender discovered. He asked some neighbors if they wanted to sign on. Others called him, eager to get involved.

In June, the residents hired a lawyer, formed a limited liability company, negotiated a deal with Ryland - and then put 10 percent down and mortgaged the rest. They and Ryland declined to reveal how much was paid, and details of the transaction are not yet available in state records.

"It'd be nice if we got our investment plus a little return, but I didn't get the impression when we all met that anyone was in it for the money," said Dave Mylin, a pilot who moved to Hollifield Station two years ago. "I looked at it as an opportunity to help preserve our neighborhood's integrity."

Mark Stafford, a real estate agent with Long and Foster who is handling the sale for the residents, said he has already received "quite a bit of calls" from people inquiring about the parcel.

"It's a beautiful piece of land," he said.

A short walk from Hollifield Station Elementary School and Patapsco Middle School, the parcel would be by far the largest residential lot in the subdivision, where families live on a half-acre or less. An old farmhouse, quaint but in need of work, stands near the road.

The one-house restriction, which means either the farmhouse or a new house, is the Hollifield Station version of Smart Growth.

Neighbors think the parcel is perfect for a family and are relieved that the ordeal is over.

"The whole community is tired after the appeals process," said Marianne Olson, whose home is next to the site.

When she moved in last year, hearings on the property had already started. She had no idea, she said with a laugh, that her family would end up owning one-twelfth of the lot.

"Honestly, I didn't realize that we could," Olson said. "It never even occurred to me that just the regular person off the street could contact Ryland and purchase the land."

Linda Dombrowski, a Hollifield Station resident who helped organize opposition to the day care center, is thankful that her neighbors took the ultimate step in land-use control.

"The whole neighborhood benefited from their generosity," she said.

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