Fair price is for jury to judge

Trial: A $9 million decision on a parkland deal in Baltimore County soon will rest with a Circuit Court panel.

February 28, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore County jury is being asked to answer a $9 million question: What's a fair price for the site of the county's newest regional park?

Assistant County Attorney James J. Nolan Jr. has told a Circuit Court jury that the county offered Clarence L. Elder $2.4 million in 1999 for 96 acres at Greenspring Valley and Falls roads that is being transformed into Meadowood Regional Park.

But that's almost $9 million short of Elder's $11.3 million asking price, according to Circuit Court testimony.

The county won Circuit Court approval in 1999 to acquire the site and has begun making $3.5 million worth of improvements, including installing picnic pavilions, athletic fields, trails and playgrounds.

But lawyers for both sides say that state and federal laws require the county to pay a fair price for the property. What that price should be is the focus of the three-day trial before county Circuit Judge Robert E. Cahill Sr.

"Ultimately it will come down to the opinions of the appraisers," Nolan has argued.

The case is expected to go to the jury today.

Jurors boarded a 16-seat county bus Tuesday for a five-mile trip to the site, where they saw a freshly paved parking lot, a sign with the park's name, lights looming over unfinished ball fields and partially completed restrooms and refreshment stands.

In testimony yesterday, Elder said that he purchased the site as an investment in 1990 and wanted to build shops and offices.

He told jurors that after a series of meetings, he thought he had support for his plans from County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, the Republican whose district includes the site.

"I reached the conclusion that I had the support I needed," Elder testified.

The son of a Georgia sharecropper and a self-described entrepreneur, Elder fought a legal battle in 1990 with United Cable over minority set-asides that won him and a partner an out-of-court settlement worth at least $50 million.

He told The Sun in 1998 that county officials angered him when they asked him to accompany a county appraiser to his property before he had been asked if he wanted to sell. He also said that he considered owning the property - in one of the area's wealthiest and most exclusive communities - a symbol of what blacks could achieve.

When Ruppersburger announced plans to condemn the property in his annual budget address in 1998, Elder charged that the condemnation was motivated by racism. But there was no talk of racism in court yesterday.

Elder acknowledged under cross-examination that he tried to develop the tract in 1992 and in 1996 but was unable to win the necessary zoning changes.

His lawyer, Dale S. Zeitlin, told jurors that if the county had not condemned the property, Elder could have sold it to a private school for use as athletic fields. Several schools need land and a few have offered huge sums, he said.

Loyola College purchased the 20-acre Boumi Temple property on Charles Street for $7.5 million in 1996. The Friends School offered Baltimore Country Club $5.1 million for 18 acres off Falls Road in 1999, Zeitlin said.

"We have a large property here, so you could really do a lot with it," Zeitlin told jurors.

But Steven Muller, the county's appraiser, testified that he declined to consider the Loyola sale and the Friends School proposal in coming up with his $2.4 million estimate because they were not comparable. Loyola bought the Boumi Temple property because it was nearby and the college needed it for an aquatic and fitness center, he said, and the Friends School's offer was rejected by country club members.

Muller, who operates a Towson real estate firm, said he reviewed the sales prices of eight comparable properties in Maryland in recent years. They included the $1.5 million paid in 1998 for the 43-acre site of Beth Tfiloh's satellite campus in Glyndon and the $1.4 million paid by the county the same year for 86 acres of open space north of Loch Raven reservoir.

Muller said that he also considered the tract's rural zoning designation, which would allow only two houses on the site.

If Elder tried to develop the site, he would have had to deal with stiff opposition from neighbors, Muller said, adding: "There are very active groups in the area that usually resist those kinds of developments."

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