Dispute over slice of land has pizza food truck in limbo

Dispute over slice of land has pizza food truck in limbo
River House Pizza Co. at the Miller Branch Library farmers market last week. The food truck restaurant hasn't been able to operate daily out of the usual spot it leases in historic Ellicott City because of a land dispute between the county and the property's owner. (Kate Magill/BSMG)

A popular Ellicott City food truck, which has leased a spot on Tonge Row since 2015 and sold pizza daily during warmer months, is caught in the middle of a land dispute between a property owner and the county.

Susan Duff, who has leased space on her property to River House Pizza Co., and Howard County government have both laid claim to the triangular patch of land rented by River House.


The county owns the parking lot adjacent to Duff's property and both are claiming the slice of land is theirs.

River House owner Nathan Sowers has been leasing the spot from Duff since he set up shop, and said he assumed the land was hers.

Many property records in historic Ellicott City date back hundreds of years, which makes tracing land ownership difficult, as property lines have been redrawn multiple times, according to Kimberly Kepnes, a real estate agent who has been assisting with the case and is Sowers' fiance.

The county has land records dating to 1948 that officials believe indicate it owns the parcel, according to Diane Wilson, chief of staff to the county executive. Duff has records from the 1800s that make her believe she has ownership, according to Kepnes.

Kepnes, who sells historic homes, said the problem stems in part because when the original deeds and plots were created, they were hand drawn and some lines were left out, creating unidentified parcels.

"It has no tax I.D., it's up for grabs, it's what we call a lost parcel," Kepnes said.

Attorneys for both parties are now in the midst of working on an amicable solution, according to county spokeswoman Deidre McCabe.

Duff could not be reached for comment.

The dispute arose last August when Sowers applied for a permit to build a permanent awning to cover his outdoor oven, as required by the health department. As the process to grant Sowers' permit continued, a complex one in a historic district, county officials discovered that they believed the land was actually theirs.

Until the county and Duff sort out the true owner of the property, Sowers cannot be granted his permit, meaning that he can't sell pizza daily.

"It's crushing us for a business, this is peak season," Sowers said on a recent sunny day. "Days like this we should be out there selling pizza."

While the county and Duff's team work towards a solution, Sowers has been granted temporary event permits to operate on weekends during the annual "Concert in the Courtyard" series and the food truck is still making its usual appearances at area farmers markets, including on Wednesdays outside Miller Branch Library and on Saturdays outside the Wine Bin, both in Ellicott City.

"To me I don't care who owns it, I just want to operate," he said.

The land dispute is one that Wilson said is fairly unique.


"It's pretty unusual, but Ellicott City is unique, so you just never know what's going to happen," Wilson said. "It really is kind of a fluke thing."