Residents oppose condo proposal

Lawsuit accuses developer of misleading homebuyers on plans for development

October 12, 2003|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

More than two dozen Abingdon homeowners are asking a Harford County Circuit Court to stop the proposed construction of 600 condominiums adjacent to their properties, claiming they were promised single-family homes as neighbors instead.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, 26 homeowners accuse Abingdon-based Universal Housing Corp. and the estate of Victor Posner - the late Baltimore-born former corporate raider who owned hundreds of properties in Maryland - of violating the Maryland Consumer Protection Act, negligent misrepresentation, fraud and deceit.

The homeowners allege that they were persuaded to sign contracts to purchase individual tracts of subdivided land and the subsequent construction of single-family homes east of the Atkisson Reservoir with the assurance that the adjacent land would also be developed into single-family homes.

As part of the sales pitch, the lawsuit claims, homeowners were shown a concept plan for the adjacent property that indicated the construction of single-family homes. But in fact, Universal Housing and Posner's estate were revising the plan so that they could build about 600 condominiums instead, the lawsuit alleges.

"If I knew there were going to be condos, I would not have bought the property," said Mark Rannie, 43, one homeowner involved in the lawsuit.

The defendants "hid and concealed their true intentions" because they knew real plans for the adjacent land would discourage potential homebuyers, the lawsuit claims. The homeowners paid between $220,000 and $275,000 for their homes.

Universal Housing and Posner's estate vehemently deny any wrongdoing.

The allegations are "meritless," said Albert J.A. Young, a Bel Air lawyer and resident agent for the two defendants.

"It's basically a lawsuit filed by owners of the properties who are not happy with what another owner of another piece of land is doing with their property," he said. "It's like buying a house next to a farm and not being happy when the farm is developed."

Besides, Young said, if there was a plan, "that doesn't mean that the plan can't change. There is no restriction against amending that plan."

It's not unusual for developers to change their concept plans, said Moe Davenport, chief of development for Harford County Development of Planning and Zoning.

Most often, plans change to meet the housing trends of the real estate market, meaning townhouses could be desirable at one time while single-family houses could be in demand at another point, Davenport said.

"They could legally modify the plans as long as the overall density doesn't change as the zoning [law] permits," Davenport said.

The land in question involves 57 acres of a 249-acre development called Monmouth Meadows in Abingdon, wedged between the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center on the west and Route 24 on the east. The land is one of hundreds of tracts owned by Posner, a financier and industrialist who once owned Arby's, Royal Crown Cola and Sharon Steel.

At one point, Posner's Security Management Corp. reportedly owned about 20,000 properties in Maryland. In Harford County, Posner's estate and Security Management own an estimated 390 properties, according to the county's Department of Assessments and Taxation.

The homeowners, who moved in between 2000 and last year, found out about the condominiums in March when they saw a notice of a public hearing pertaining to the proposed development, which has received preliminary approval.

Rannie and his wife, Shelley, bought their home for $235,000 in January 2001 and moved in eight months later. The couple also paid an additional $7,500 in a "premium site" fee because of its proximity to the adjacent land that planned to house single-family homes, Rannie said.

Rannie, vice president of Emanuel Tire Co. in Baltimore, said he is concerned about neighborhood traffic flow.

"It'll be a different community than we bought into. I'm sure the value of our property would be affected negatively," Rannie said.

Jonathan A. Azrael, a Baltimore lawyer for the homeowners, said they are not trying to restrict property rights, but want to remedy a situation in which the homeowners feel they got into by deception.

"We think the developer has the right to use the property as the law permits," Azrael said. "[But] we don't think the developer has a right to mislead his customers."

In addition to a permanent injunction against the construction of the condominiums, the lawsuit also seeks monetary damages.

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