The Howard County school system may have to search for a new location for a much-needed elementary school because the owner of the property it is trying to buy is embroiled in a legal dispute that has held up the sale.

Meanwhile, the Board of Education has sued the property owners in Circuit Court, alleging that they reneged on the $2.64 million deal to sell the school system the 10.1 acres in Elkridge. But the developer can't complete the deal until a lien dispute is resolved with a shareholder, Barry Mehta, who has fought several battles with the county over the years involving an adult book store and operating a flea market at the site of a former drive-in movie theater.

School officials conceded in an interview that they entered into an agreement to purchase the property Oct. 3 and have invested a quarter of a million dollars in the project, even though the lawsuit between Mehta and the developer was unresolved. That case is still pending in court, with Mehta demanding additional funds from the sale of the property.

"It probably would've been better to have the lien release in hand, in retrospect," said Joel Gallihue, manager of planning for the Howard County school system.

Mehta, who said the burden is on the sellers to get the funds that they owe him, said, "I'm not holding anything up. I wish the school would get the site."

Two title searches on the property, including one in July, showed the pending lawsuit between Mehta and the sellers, Ducketts Ridge LLC, which includes members Hugh F. Cole Jr. and John F. Liparini, and the Brantly Development Group, based in Columbia. Cole is the chairman of Brantly and Liparini is the president.

Gallihue said the school system raised questions about the dispute in June, but he said Liparini assured him that the problems were over procedural issues in foreclosure proceedings that would be resolved.

The suit filed by the Howard County school system includes an email Liparini wrote to Gallihue on June 20 that says: "Ducketts Ridge LLC still owns the property and is not involved in the dispute. I manage the day to day operation of the LLC. Ducketts will do whatever necessary to make sure the property is conveyed free of any encumbrances in a timely fashion."

The next day, the Board of Education approved the site for acquisition.

The school system has a contract for $2.64 million, which Gallihue said was 10 percent more than the highest appraisal because school officials wanted to make sure they had a strong offer.

But now the questions remain whether the school will ever get built. Beginning last spring, school officials began searching for a site to ease crowding along the U.S. 1 corridor, where, despite the recession, new-home building has continued.

The school system has already spent $258,000 on site work, environment assessments, appraisals and other acquisition expenses.

"We get to a point where we can't bid out the project," Gallihue said, adding that the school system has been "working on other sites. We keep moving with those types of things," but he said, "we'd like to see them settle." He said the county could opt to exercise its right to eminent domain. "They clearly agreed to provide the title to us free and clear," he said.

If no settlement is reached, the lawsuit could drag on through the year, causing the school system to miss its June deadline to begin construction. The new 600-seat school is supposed to open by August 2013 to ease projected growth at Bellow Springs, Deep Run and Elkridge elementary schools.

Gallihue said another project for a middle school at the newly built Oxford Square development in so far on target.

The delay in the deal has also affected approval from the County Council on the number of new homes that can be built in the county from 2014 to 2016.

Growth control laws that provide a quota for the number of new homes that can be built by developers across the county can only be approved if there are enough classrooms. But with projected residential growth along the U.S. 1 corridor, where county officials are promoting more dense, multi-family housing, school officials say they need the new schools. Redistricting efforts, which move students from overcrowded schools to underpopulated schools, can't do the job.

The council postponed approval of the school capacity chart and housing allocation charts in November; another voting date has not been scheduled.

Mehta said that he's not the cause of the delay in the sale of the Elkridge property, arguing that Ducketts Ridge LLC owes him money, and he is fighting to get an additional $200,000 in proceeds from the latest closing attempt, according to court files.

"I hope that they are working on it," he said, adding he's "very eager for the kids to have the site."

Back in July, a title search on the property showed that Brantly Development Group, Ducketts Ridge, Cole and Liparini had defaulted on a $3.1 million PNC Bank loan assigned to Mehta and his wife, Charu. Cole and Liparini did not return calls for comment.

Mehta has fought battles in the county over the years for different projects and faced several civil lawsuits. He owns a building on U.S. 40 that houses the Pack Shack, an adult bookstore that Ellicott City residents fought for a decade to close. He said he has never known the owner of the store.

In 2003, Mehta, who had owned an adult day care center in Westview Park, was convicted of stealing $125,000 from Medicaid by billing the state for the care of clients on days they were not present at the Family Home Center on Baltimore National Pike. He was put on five years' probation and was ordered to perform 500 hours of community service.

In the mid-1990s, he successfully fought for zoning approval for a flea market at the 17-acre site of the former Elkridge Drive-In, which he owned.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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