Check the records


December 20, 2006

The exploitation of Baltimore's antiquated ground rent system has prompted Frank M. Conaway, the clerk of Baltimore's Circuit Court, to launch a review of some court records for other potential abuses. While the ground rent system is pervasive in Baltimore, the city isn't the only jurisdiction where property owners pay minimal rents to lease ground under their homes. And though officials say Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties have vastly fewer ground rents, the county Circuit Court clerks should monitor case filings to ensure that citizens aren't unjustly forfeiting their property over unpaid ground rents.

Mr. Conaway's directive to his staff is in response to an illuminating investigative series by The Sun's June Arney and Fred Schulte that identified abuses of the ground-rent system, which unfairly penalized property owners who could least afford it. The series identified a handful of companies and individuals who seized houses for delinquent ground rents, as little as $24, even though some property owners didn't even know the payments were overdue.

It was a crass exploitation of a system that began in the 19th century to help people afford a home. The newspaper series identified hundreds of lawsuits in which ground-rent holders moved to take homes or properties that families should have inherited.

Mr. Conaway's specific interest is in cases where ground rent holders sought to gain control of property when they knew the owners were dead. In such cases, Mr. Conaway has alleged that Heidi Kenny, an attorney representing ground rent holders, circumvented the law and bypassed probate procedures to seize the property. Mr. Conaway says the court, the busiest in the state, doesn't have the means to verify that property owners are alive; it relies on the integrity of lawyers filing such cases.

A preliminary review of Anne Arundel's filings by Circuit Court Clerk Robert P. Duckworth found no similar cases by Ms. Kenny. That's a start.

Since the publication of the newspaper's series, lawmakers have decried the practices of some ground rent holders and pledged changes in the law to protect unsuspecting property owners or their heirs. But until The Sun's reports, judges and others in the legal system weren't aware of the widespread attempts to seize properties in ground rent disputes in the city.

Now that the problem is known, public officials must actively help identify other areas of concern or abuse.

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