Eviction ends long struggle for Wincopia Farms

Ruth and Emily Hearn hurriedly move plants

May 04, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

As eviction day loomed, 79-year-old Ruth Hearn lived in an upstairs bedroom of her cold, dark home, using oil lamps for light.

By her reckoning, her family had worked the 124-acre Wincopia Farms in Southeastern Howard County for six or seven generations. Before her husband's death in 1996, they grew flowers for the White House grounds; more recently, Ruth and her daughter Emily had dreamed of expanding the business with a botanical garden.

But the $4.5 million loan they took out in 2002 had ballooned to a $13 million debt that they could never repay, and in 2008, lender Gourley & Gourley LLC foreclosed.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, nearly two centuries of Hearn family stewardship of this patch of land came to an end with the arrival of lawyers from Gourley, Howard County sheriff's deputies, and crews from Turbo-Haul in Beltsville to remove their belongings.

"They've left us with nothing," a fit-looking Ruth Hearn said, her white hair tied in braids across the back of her head, in the country style.

The Hearns had hired workers of their own to carry flowers and plants away in rented trucks. Emily Hearn, 52, sniffed tearfully as a laborer snagged a banana plant on a dangling extension cord in their one greenhouse that remained undamaged. Rows of smaller plastic and wood plant shelters had collapsed under February's heavy snows.

"This is my inheritance, my livelihood, my business," Emily had said the day before. "This is my everything."

Where the flowers grew, Gourley is planning a sale to produce 220 new homes. The property on Gorman Road west of I-95 is a developer's dream: Green fields on gentle slopes in a growing area of high-priced houses and estates, already zoned residential and with easy access to public utilities.

The Hearns and Gourley blame each other for what both sides describe as a sad ending to their relationship.

The Hearns say the McLean, Va., investment firm took advantage of them. They believe Gourley intended to get their valuable land from the start.The firm's officials reject the charge.

Gourley is under a consent order from Virginia securities regulators to sell its properties and close its investment business for selling unregistered securities using unregistered sales people. The states of Alabama and North Carolina have also banned its sales.

Gourley sells "memberships" to investors, often elderly people, and loans cash to high-risk borrowers at high interest rates, often using real estate as collateral.

A lawyer for Gourley said the firm tried to help the family.

Attorney Demetris Voudouris, who was at the farm Tuesday, said the Hearns could have avoided bankruptcy by accepting any of several offers from developers over the years. They could have settled their debt, he said, and walked away rich.

"We just wanted to get paid back," Voudouris said.

Even after the April 2008 foreclosure, he said, the firm was willing to return the farm if the Hearns raised enough money to pay the debt.

"They had plenty of warning," Voudouris said. "We told them in August 2006 that we were not going to renew the loan."

"Nobody relishes what we're doing today," added lawyer Jeffrey W. Bernstein, hired by Gourley to help with the case.

Emily Hearn said there were too many strings attached to Gourley's offers. She says the firm discouraged a sale to a developer.

Gourley bought the farm at a foreclosure auction in February 2008 for $12.5 million. The Hearns fought the foreclosure, and later the eviction, in court.

Those appeals were exhausted in March, and Howard County Circuit Judge Lenore Gelfman granted Gourley an order of possession.

Voudouris said the firm had tried to reach an agreement for the women to leave on their own timetable.

"All we were looking for was a date certain," he said.

Voudouris said the firm had kept the Hearns in operation for eight years, but now wants to get a development plan approved and sell the land to a builder.

While one set of workers loaded flowers and plants into trucks, another removed battered furniture from the two-story house. The Hearns said the white, wooden structure was built in the early 19th century, on the site of an earlier log cabin.

"It means so much to know you're walking in the same footsteps as your ancestors," Emily Hearn had said Monday, the original eviction date, before heavy rains forced a one-day postponement. "It's not right."

The women said they weren't sure where all the plants or themselves would end up. The mother and daughter might now stay with some of Emily's seven siblings, or friends.

They have until mid-day Wednesday to reclaim belongings piled outside the house. After that, the furniture, personal effects and bedding may be disposed of by Gourley.

Ruth Hearn said she had lived on the property for nearly 60 years.

"I worked with my husband in the business all my life," she said.

Now, she said, "We'll start from scratch."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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