Neighbors see threat to Pikesville cemetery 'park'

State's highest court to hear Baltimore County case

February 16, 2011|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

Strollers and joggers are drawn to the duck pond, woods and gentle hills of Druid Ridge Cemetery in Pikesville, which for generations has served as a park.

Neighbors say they've come to treasure this green patch amid the surrounding asphalt, stores and fast-food places, and they've been fighting in court to stop a real estate developer's plan to build houses along one border of the cemetery.

The latest chapter in their effort to stop development on the nondenominational cemetery is expected to unfold in Maryland's highest court this spring. Neighbors, community associations and cemetery plot owners sued in 2006. contending that one provision of a nearly century-old deed says the 209-acre cemetery can be used only for burials and mausoleums.

Their argument has been rejected by the Baltimore County Circuit Court and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, both of which ruled that the one-line restrictive covenant in the 1913 deed did not refer to the entire property, but only the portion that at the time was being used for interments. The Maryland Court of Appeals has agreed to hear the case.

The development company, Druid Ridge LLP — whose four principals, Arthur Adler, Howard Brown, Hanan Sibel and Steve Sibel, have extensive experience in business and development in Baltimore County — has the county's approval to build 56 semi-attached single-family houses in the northeast portion of the cemetery, where there are no graves or mausoleums.

Since 1999, according to court papers, the developers have had an agreement with the Druid Ridge Cemetery Co. to buy 36 acres along Park Heights Avenue near the Baltimore Beltway for the project, once all regulatory and legal requirements are met.

The main obstacle now is a lawsuit filed in 2006 by the Dumbarton Improvement Association Inc., the Long Meadow Association Inc., individual owners of burial plots and neighbors of Druid Ridge, which was hailed when it opened in 1898 as a model of cemetery design with its parklike setting.

Brochures for the cemetery have promoted the open grounds as a refuge, and neighbors say they want to keep it that way.

"People around here, they don't go to parks, they go to the cemetery," said Alan P. Zukerberg, a member and immediate past president of the Long Meadow Association. He complains about a lack of public parks in the Pikesville neighborhood. "Although it's privately owned, the county and everyone treated this as if it was parkland. My parents probably took me in the 1940s and 1950s to the duck pond."

The opponents say they're concerned that more land sales could follow, further shrinking the areas of rolling green and stands of trees.

Sharon Rosen, one of the four people named in the suit, said she fears this sale could begin "the ruination of a very, very beautiful cemetery."

Dino C. LaFiandra, a lawyer representing the Druid Ridge Cemetery Co., which is owned by the national cemetery company, Stewart Enterprises Inc., said he's not aware of plans to sell other property.

"I've been working on this case for nine years," said LaFiandra of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston in Towson. "I have never had any discussions with anybody about surplusing other property."

He said 96 acres of the cemetery remain undeveloped, including the 36 acres of grassy land and trees the developer wants to buy. There are now 41,515 people interred in Druid Ridge, he said.

The 2008 Circuit Court opinion by Judge Kathleen Gallogly Cox held that even without the 36 acres, there would be enough room for interments "through this century."

The case focuses on one line in the deed drawn up in Circuit Court in 1913 as part of a bankruptcy proceeding after the original owners became insolvent: "That the said property be maintained and operated as a cemetery."

Michael R. McCann, the Towson lawyer representing the community and cemetery plot owners, argued in his bid for a hearing before the Court of Appeals that the "plain language of the covenant and the deed" show that the restriction applied to the whole cemetery and should be enforced accordingly.

Cox ruled that "there is nothing in the record" showing that the court or the parties in the bankruptcy meant to bar all uses other than interments. Last fall, the Court of Special Appeals agreed.

Cox also dismissed arguments that all of the undeveloped area of the cemetery is needed to "preserve the tranquil cemetery setting." If the development is built, she wrote, "evidence is convincing that it will not even be visible from most vantage points within the Cemetery, and the potential visible impact will be negligible."

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