Since 1971, John Baumgarten has spent $30,000 to erect a shed, install a water line, build brick steps and put in electricity and a patio on the sloping waterfront tract behind his Cape St. Claire home.
Friday, an Anne Arundel Circuit Court judge ruled that the property belongs to the community, not to Mr. Baumgarten.
"I think it's wrong, and I disagree. But it's something I'll just have to live with," said Mr. Baumgarten, a construction contractor.
Mr. Baumgarten was one of a group of St. Claire homeowners who sued the Cape St. Claire Community Association in 1992, asking a judge to declare them owners of the waterfront tracts behind the homes they bought in the 1970s and 1980s.
Judge H. Chester Goudy Jr. ruled that Mr. Baumgarten and his wife, Donna; Jeffrey and Sharon Selig; Vitauts and Kathleen Skrastins; and John Stout, all of whom live along Deep Creek, failed to meet the legal test to establish ownership of the tracts, each 60 feet wide and 20 to 40 feet long.
Deeds and community association records indicate that the lots are community property.
The homeowners argued in their suit that they were entitled to ownership under a legal concept called adverse possession, which says that title to a property can be transferred to someone who uses it for 20 years "openly and exclusively" without the permission of the owner of record.
In a three-day trial last week, officials of the 2,200-member association argued that it has always been widely accepted that the tracts were community property and that homeowners used them with the association's permission.
The association sent letters informing homeowners of that in 1977 and 1988, its lawyers argued.
"I've known for many years that the rights to the waterfront are owned by the community. I just felt everybody knew that," said Eugene Barnhart, a member of the association's board of governors.
Mr. Baumgarten and the others argued that they had met the law's requirements for adverse possession, treating the land as their own over the years.
"When you walk these properties, you see substantial patios and decks and walkways and sheds," Robert Warfield, the homeowners' lawyer, told Judge Goudy.
The homeowners say the prices of their homes -- most more than $300,000 -- and their property taxes have been based on the assumption that they were waterfront properties.
Judge Goudy ruled that the community association had granted the homeowners permission to build their piers and that permission for such uses nullified their adverse possession claims.
"What the plaintiffs knew, or should have known, when they filed the requests to build the piers, was that it was the land of the community association they were building on," Judge Goudy said.
The ruling gives the community association authority to deny the homeowners access to the improvements that they have made along the water and the piers they have built and maintained over the years.
But Gretel Derby, the former president of the community association and an association spokeswoman, said that if the homeowners agree to pay the legal fees stemming from the suit, the board of governors will allow them access.
"What we want is to resolve this in a way that's best for everyone involved and good for the community," she said.