Ground-rents, a form of property ownership that dates back to colonial times in Maryland, have been in the news again.
In the last several weeks, articles in the Baltimore Sun report that a ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals "tossed-out … an ambitious legislative effort" to address what some lawmakers perceived as abusive practices on the part of some ground-rent owners in Maryland.
The Sun reports that the court "ruled that the law violated the rights of 'ground-rent' owners … The decision throws into doubt sweeping 2007 changes to a Colonial-era system under which many homes in Baltimore and around the state sit on ground that is owned by a leaseholder. Homeowners on those properties are legally required to pay rent. …"
Although most discussions of the real estate ownership practice of ground-rents are associated with Baltimore City; to this day most of the John and Carroll Street portion of Westminster on the former Grandadam Farm, also known as "the space between," also pays ground-rent.
Ground-rent law in Maryland is quite complicated. But a simple explanation is that even though you bought the property, you still owe ground-rent to a person who still owns the ground upon which your house or building stands. In the case of Westminster, it's an organization that owns the ground, the Catholic Church, namely the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
The history of ground-rents in Westminster involves intrigue of byzantine proportions with all the twists and turns of a soap opera.
Local historian Don Hickey wrote a short version of the history of the John and Carroll Street section of Westminster in the fall 1983 "Westminster Past Times."
According to Hickey, "In the late 18th Century this farm was purchased by Francis and Regina Grandadam. Francis pre-deceased Regina, who in her will dated April 6, 1812, did 'bequeath unto my negro Elizabeth during her lifetime all my real estate. After her death, I request my executors to rent my real estate and the rent arising from the aforesaid property to be paid to the Roman priest that attends the Roman chapel near Westminster.' "
Although more research is needed to determine who wrote her will, it is interesting to note that the fifth Chief Justice of the United States, Roger Brooke Taney was Grandadam's attorney in several legal matters from 1809 to 1811.
"Following Regina Grandadam's death," reports Hickey, "the property was minimally maintained and eventually came into the possession of the Roman Catholic Church. A trustee of the Church controlled the property until its management was turned over to the Redemptorists on February 12, 1849.
"By 1863, the land had been subdivided into lots which were leased for ground rents. This arrangement exists today with many building owners on John and Carroll Streets paying small yearly ground rents to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore."