Wanted: owners of land

Property owners prove elusive

Property: Some prime parcels in Maryland have nonexistent or elusive title holders.

October 13, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Standing by the side of Old Annapolis Road, just east of Centennial Park, near some of the most expensive suburban real estate Howard County has to offer, it is hard to imagine a half-acre of land within shouting distance that does not belong to anyone.

But there it is, hidden in plain view.

Here and elsewhere across the Baltimore region, uncounted unclaimed pieces of property lurk -- landmines waiting to blow up in someone's face.

Discovering unowned real estate might seem a stroke of good luck. The problem is, finders are not necessarily keepers, not even a government agency that needs to build a road.

"They are a disproportionate drain on our time and expenses," sighed Janet Bush Handy, deputy counsel for the State Highway Administration, which uncovers a sliver or two in the way of projects every year. "With these old titles, you can end up with gaps."

Howard County's Department of Public Works runs across small pieces of land with dead-end ownership records about a half-dozen times a year and will shift projects to avoid them. The other Baltimore suburbs do not see cases that frequently -- Baltimore County's land acquisition staff can think of fewer than a half-dozen since 1990.

What's worse is if the unowned property holds an empty building with the power to ruin a neighborhood.

"This is a huge problem in Baltimore City," said Brenda Bratton Blom, a University of Maryland School of Law assistant professor who helps with community development work in low-income areas.

"It drives the neighbors crazy," said Alex Strubing, a code enforcement attorney for Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development, which deals with "owner missing in action" cases all the time.

"If it happens in a neighborhood that's a solid neighborhood and we're doing what we can to shore it up, it can be devastating," Strubing said. "Every house counts."

But it is immaterial if the last known owner died before the Spanish-American War, the company is defunct or the surveyors made an error -- municipalities cannot be squatters. If they want it, they have to ask the courts to condemn it, which can easily take a year.

It's not free, either. Juries name an amount, which eventually goes to the state's unclaimed property fund, and there it may sit forever.

A relatively small portion of the 14,000 abandoned and unfit properties in Baltimore are also unowned, but they are a migraine headache for the code enforcers. Baltimore only uses the power of eminent domain only when whole areas are set to be redeveloped, not for individual properties, said Julie Day, acting director of the city housing department's code enforcement legal section.

Instead, code enforcers work like detectives to find someone to pin the property on so he or she can be held accountable.

They recently negotiated a happy ending for a house in the 4800 block of Greencrest Road, a largely owner-occupied section of Northeast Baltimore, in which drug dealers and users were squatting last year. Although a defunct corporation was listed as the owner, code enforcers tracked the bulk of its Baltimore assets to a mortgage company in Texas.

Police arrested the trespassers, the company remodeled the house and in August the property was sold, said code enforcement attorney Cathy Brennan. The new owner lives there.

But sometimes there is truly no one to deal with. Enforcers are watching and hoping that nearly 20 properties belonging to a man who died last year, leaving no apparent heir, will be bought at tax sales.

"It comes up weekly in our office ... that ownership is unclear, and often that leads to the discovery that there is no actual owner," Day said.

In the suburbs, higher values make it less likely that homes will just sit around when the title holder dies. Usually the orphan real estate is undeveloped land in plain view -- and quite possibly everyone thinks it is owned by someone else.

Counties can point to unaccounted-for fragments of neighborhoods that got lost in the shuffle when the subdivisions were designed decades ago.

"Oftentimes it's just very small pieces next to highways that people forgot about," said Richard E. Basehoar, a Howard County solicitor.

An easy mistake

Unattached land might seem extraordinary in a country as attached to property rights as the United States, but observers some think it is remarkable that these mistakes do not happen more often.

"There's literally thousands of things that happen with a transfer, line by line, that can make a difference," said Kent T. Finkelsen, assistant supervisor for assessments in Howard County. "Every time something is broken up -- you have a hundred-acre farm in Ellicott City, now you have 200 lots -- well, now you have 200 chances to make another error."

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