As eager developers wait to begin a $220 million project designed to give Owings Mills a town center, a legal battle between the state and the land's former owners threatens to derail a vision of homes, offices and a library just steps away from the community's Metro station.
The former owners, who lost the land to condemnation years ago, say the state violated an agreement giving them a chance to repurchase any property that wasn't needed for the Metro system or Interstate 795. Now, they're demanding more than $50 million in damages.
The case - headed for an important hearing this week - has surprised even top Baltimore County officials and community activists who have followed the project closely for years. They say the development, on 46 acres of Metro parking lots, was years in the making before anyone mentioned publicly the 1988 repurchase agreement.
"I didn't even know about it," said former County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who proposed the project and successfully lobbied the state to carry it out. "I don't think anybody in the county really did."
Vicki Almond, president of the Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon Coordinating Council, said it sounds as if "everybody dropped the ball."
"It seems to me that somebody had to know about it," she said. "What the reason was for keeping the news away from us, I don't know. ... I do find it incredible."
The former owners, the Painters Mill Venture partnership, spoke up about their intention to challenge the state in October, just after the Board of Public Works approved a 99-year lease agreement with a developer, said Assistant Attorney General Janet Bush Handy.
Painters Mill is not necessarily interested in having the land back - it does not want to be bound by lease terms it had no role in creating, according to court papers. Instead, it says it is entitled to damages.
At issue is the validity of a 1988 repurchase agreement between the state and the partnership, which had to give up 137 acres that year for the construction of the Northwest Expressway and the Metro tracks, station and parking lots.
The state argues that the agreement is invalid and, in April, filed a lawsuit asking the court to say so. Painters Mill filed a counterclaim in May.
Ruppersberger, now a congressman, saw the project as the focal point of Owings Mills, a way to give the area an identity.
It would include a public library, a community college branch, a hotel, homes, offices, shops and restaurants. At its center would be a town square for festivals, concerts and civic events. The commuter parking lots would be replaced with multistory garages.
When he announced the proposal in 2000, Ruppersberger called the project "an opportunity to make Owings Mills a model for smart growth nationwide." Proponents said the project, a 10-mile train ride from downtown Baltimore, would discourage suburban sprawl and encourage use of mass transit.
That may be, lawyers for Painters Mill say, but the state had a responsibility to notify the partnership before making such plans.
So why didn't Painters Mill speak up sooner?
"What's the difference?" said Jeffrey H. Scherr of the Baltimore law firm Kramon & Graham. "The fact of the matter is, the state knew there was an obligation. ... They overlooked it or ignored it for whatever reason."
Many of the landowners who bought the property in 1965 now are elderly or dead, Scherr said. Some no longer live in Maryland full time, so they had not necessarily kept track of what was happening to the property.
The original partnership was led by the late Jerome S. Cardin, who was convicted in 1986 of stealing $385,000 from Old Court Savings & Loan after decades of community service and philanthropy and pardoned posthumously by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
Jack Baylin, who succeeded Cardin as Painters Mill's managing partner, still lives and works in the Baltimore area but spends much of his time in Colorado. He referred questions to the partnership's lawyers.
Thomas F. McDonough, who also represents the group, said his clients did not know about the project until October, when they saw newspaper articles about its first developer backing out. McDonough said the state had ample opportunity to notify them: His firm - Royston, Mueller, McLean & Reid in Towson - had been negotiating on Painters Mill's behalf since 1999 to reclaim a few small parcels that were part of the 137 acres.
"The only thing I can conclude is that they were trying to keep it secret from us for some reason," he said.
At a hearing Thursday, the state will ask a Baltimore County circuit judge for an immediate ruling, while Painters Mill will ask for a trial.