Balto. County irked by condo payments

Voting rights sought in complex bought for revitalization Balto. County takes owners' panel to court

October 18, 2001|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Since Baltimore County's government began purchasing World War II-era buildings at the Villages of Tall Trees in Essex 18 months ago, officials have found themselves in the peculiar position of paying condominium fees for an apartment complex they plan to demolish.

In all, $217,000 in public funds have been paid to the Tall Trees owners' council - which functions as a condominium association - since officials targeted the complex for demolition and conversion to a public park as part of a larger east-side revitalization effort. The county is paying $23,000 a month in fees, records show.

But officials want to put an end to the arrangement. They plan to take the owners' council to Circuit Court this week to obtain voting rights, said County Attorney Edward J. Gilliss.

Because the county owns 70-plus buildings at Tall Trees, "we feel we have a right to a vote," Gilliss said.

The court action is part of the county's continuing effort to bring the Tall Trees project - which has cost the county more than $11 million - to a conclusion. "This noble cause deserves to have an end," Gilliss said.

But the county's attempt to gain voting rights is opposed by the council's attorney, Michael Connaughton of Annapolis. He has argued that because the county has condemnation authority, it does not share common interest in the properties with other owners. He is out of the country this week and unavailable for comment.

If the county obtains voting rights, it would immediately exercise its standing as a majority owner, Gilliss said yesterday, and "first would reorganize the condominium association's board of directors."

That would allow the county to stop paying the $23,000 monthly fees. Also, he said, a new board controlled by the county would seek an accounting of the $217,000 in fees paid by the county.

The Tall Trees property will be part of the most ambitious revitalization project in county history. Other east-side apartment developments, including Riverdale and Chesapeake Village, have been torn down for a single-family housing development and for parkland.

Officials are also working to build a waterfront center with restaurants, shops, riverfront cottages and a boardwalk at the headwaters of Middle River.

"Time has been wasting on this key Tall Trees project," County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger said yesterday. "The only issue remaining is money. That problem will be resolved, and we will move ahead."

Since April last year, the county has spent $11.3 million to buy buildings from most of the 37 property owners at Tall Trees. Some community residents said the 105 red-brick buildings are forlorn reminders of better days.

But a handful of owners have dug in their heels and refused to sell. The county has initiated condemnation proceedings against them, and a judge will decide a fair settlement price. Property owners can appeal that ruling.

The court actions and drawn-out property negotiations have fatigued at least one council member and property owner, Jean Spotts. A retired lawyer, she is on the verge of settling with the county for the five buildings she owns.

"Whoever said it's been about money was correct because I wanted more," Spotts said.

Most property owners worked hard over the years to maintain affordable housing in a part of the county noted for its high number of low-income units, she said.

The county's attempt to become a voting member of the owners' council will "take us into new territory," Spotts said. "The reason this has dragged on for so long is that there is no legal precedent on how to deal with this.

"Whichever judge gets this case will be scratching his head, the lawyers will be scratching their heads," Spotts said. "All of this is a case of first impression."

The other council members - Edward M. Colwill, John Earl Lake, Brian E. Wright and Thomas S. Rafailides - could not be reached for comment.

They and Spotts own the remaining 24 buildings at Tall Trees, many of which are vacant and boarded up, awaiting the arrival of the bulldozers.

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