Bank, not open space, due on property

Part of land sold for road added to commercial site

October 09, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

When Howard County threatened in July 2003 to condemn James and Maria Oliver's 3.2-acre homestead for a developer to build a road into the emerging Maple Lawn development, the Olivers were told that any of their land left over would be commercially worthless.

But now, with the road complete, Maple Lawn developer Stuart J. Greenebaum confirmed that a Sun Trust bank is set to rise on a portion of the Olivers' former property as part of a new shopping center along the east side of Maple Lawn Boulevard, a major thoroughfare through the neo-traditional community.

"We always knew it would not [all] be open space. Obviously, we did not get any recognition of the commercial value of the property. We did get squeezed," James Oliver said recently, though he said he considers the episode closed.

Greenebaum denied taking unfair advantage.

Maple Lawn, located in Fulton west of Route 29 between Route 216 to the south and Johns Hopkins Road to the north, is Howard County's latest large, mixed-use development. The community is slated to have more than 1,340 homes and 1.86 million square feet of commercial and office space on about 700 acres when complete.

In June 2003, county public works officials sent E. Alexander Adams, the Olivers' attorney at the time, a letter stating: "The property to be acquired from the Olivers will be used for the road construction and any remainder will be deeded to the county as open space."

After James Oliver's protests that Greenebaum's $382,000 offer based on the appraisal price was far too low for the couple to find a comparable replacement home, county officials held off on condemnation. The Olivers eventually negotiated a $523,000 settlement and moved to a new home in Oella in Baltimore County in June 2005. That was a month before a U.S. Supreme Court decision aroused a storm of criticism for upholding the right of a Connecticut town to seize private property for a developer's economic development project rather than for traditional public uses such as roads or schools.

The Olivers' former property was rezoned into Maple Lawn's mixed-use category in March 2006, and the planning board approved the amended development plan in January. Those actions meant the land could be used for commercial as well as more intense residential purposes than the Olivers' would have had the ability to do, increasing its value, Adams said.

With the threat of condemnation looming, and the County Council unwilling to rezone Oliver's land for commercial use, Oliver had little room to maneuver, he said.

He tried to include a provision in the sales contract that if his land were developed commercially within 15 years, he would receive more money, but Greenebaum refused.

"The County Council wanted to get it settled. We decided to move on. There's nothing to be gained by getting upset now," Oliver said.

The couple sold two other undeveloped residential lots they owned in Howard County, they said, and combined the proceeds with what they received for their home to buy a hilly, 4-acre wooded site on a dead-end street in Oella, just across the Patapsco River from Ellicott City.

The Olivers, both retired federal employees, transplanted some of the smaller plants and trees from their old home to their new property. Many of the large trees he raised were sold to a broker for relocation to large estates along the East Coast.

Greenebaum and James M. Irvin, the county's public works director, say the Olivers got their due and were not deceived.

"We owned the land adjacent to it," Greenebaum said, adding that the Olivers' land only had commercial value as part of a larger parcel. "It's worth more if you join it to the larger piece. It could not be developed in his sliver."

Greenebaum said the Olivers should invite him to visit them in their new home. "I paid for it," he said, a claim they say is an exaggeration.

Adams, the Olivers' former attorney, said that although he's not privy to Greenebaum's deal with the bank, "I guarantee the bank is paying a nice square-foot return. ... In my opinion, he easily doubled or tripled his money."

Plans filed with Howard County show the bank and perhaps a portion of a nearby retail store building will be within the two-thirds of an acre of former Oliver land on the east side of Maple Lawn Boulevard, at the intersection with Johns Hopkins Road.

The shopping center is to contain two retail buildings for small stores, a restaurant and a 175-child-capacity Columbia Academy preschool, plus parking.

"The only reason we could develop it was because we had the rest of Maple Lawn," Greenebaum said, calling the Olivers' property "a scrap of land."

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