The Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled yesterday that the Carroll County Commissioners erred when they condemned a property in Gamber to extend a road and thus help a farmer develop his land.
The decision means that the property must revert to the High Ridge Association, a group of area homeowners that opposed the condemnation and took the county to court to reverse it. Yesterday's ruling was the result of the association's appeal after it lost in Carroll Circuit Court.
"It's been a long battle," association president Dave Bond said yesterday.
Judge Dale R. Cathell, who wrote the appellate decision for the state's second-highest court, said the commissioners' condemnation action three years ago benefited only Aaron E. and Ruth E. Green of the 2900 block of Birdview Road. The couple wanted the county to extend High Ridge Drive so that they could build 11 houses on their farm.
"That is an inappropriate use of the condemnation power," Judge Cathell wrote in the 16-page decision. "The county's action was thus oppressive, arbitrary and unreasonable."
Government should use its eminent domain powers only when they clearly benefit the public, he said. "The commissioners' decision to initiate condemnation . . . was clearly and solely made to enhance the private interests of the Greens," he said.
Judge Cathell said the commissioners made a "bald claim" when they stated that the condemnation of the 50-foot by 15-foot parcel would benefit the public.
"There is no evidence in the record supporting the county's declaration of public purpose. The evidence is not weak; it is simply not there," he said.
Commissioner Donald I. Dell, who voted to condemn the land in 1992, stood by his decision yesterday.
"[The judge's] reasoning is not correct. There is some benefit to the general public," Mr. Dell said.
If High Ridge Drive could not be extended 500 feet to accommodate the 11 homes, Mr. Green would have to build a longer road off Birdview Road to reach the parcel, Mr. Dell said.
He said the county would have to pay to maintain either road, and it would be more expensive to maintain the longer road.
Westminster attorney John T. Maguire, who represents the Greens, said, "I have looked at the opinion, and I do believe there are reasonable grounds for an appeal."
Mr. Maguire said late yesterday that he had not talked to the Greens and did not know if they would take the case to the Court of Appeals.
The case began in 1991, when the Greens suggested that the county should condemn the parcel so they could extend High Ridge Drive and build the 11 homes. They had tried for at least four years to buy the land, but the homeowners' association would not sell. The parcel is worth $1,000.
Association members said the road extension would bring more traffic to the area and lower their quality of life.
The previous Board of County Commissioners had voted 2-1 to condemn the land. They said the county master plan called for High Ridge Drive to be extended and that it was a mistake that the road had been built as a cul-de-sac.
The current board of commissioners, which took office in December, tried to reverse the previous board's decision in February by voting 2-1 to return the land to the High Ridge Association. Mr. Dell is the only incumbent commissioner.
Commissioners W. Benjamin Brown and Richard T. Yates said at the time they voted against the condemnation that it did not benefit all county residents. They believed they were settling the case, but the Court of Special Appeals refused to drop the appeal.
Political and personal connections became part of the debate over the small parcel. The homeowners said Mr. Dell had a conflict of interest in the original condemnation decision because he knew Mr. Green.
Testimony in the Circuit Court case showed that Mr. Dell was acquainted with Mr. Green's father, Charles Green. Mr. Dell said his parents grew up in Gamber and the Greens also had roots in the area.
In addition, Mr. Bond, who has been president of the High Ridge Association for two years, served as treasurer for Commissioner Yates' campaign last fall.
Mr. Yates said Mr. Bond did not influence his vote to return the land to the homeowners' association.