Having spent months overseeing the sale of a bankrupt restaurant at the historic Samuel Owings House, a federal judge yesterday was amazed to learn of a deal to dismantle the building to make way for a $20 million office tower.
"It's astounding," Judge James F. Schneider said at a hearing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. "I've listened to this whole thing for six months,and now they're trying to scuttle the whole ship."
However, in the end, he rejected a bid to keep the restaurant's new owners from moving the business to the office tower.
"The preservation of that building was one product of that sale. I have to admit I was happy to see that," the judge said. "But the business of the bankruptcy court is not historic preservation."
Yesterday's hearing in a downtown Baltimore courtroom was the latest chapter in a months-long clash between the causes of economic development and historic preservation.
The Owings House -- one of the oldest in the county -- won a place on a preliminary list of protected properties, creating an obstacle to a developer's plan to move it and build offices on the site.
But the county executive chose not to submit the recommendation for County Council approval, keeping the development option alive. Meanwhile, Richard Pirone closed the restaurant he'd run in the 18th-century house, his company declared bankruptcy, and the business was sold.
Recently, the new owners, Henry Pertman and Jeff Pressman, said escalating renovation costs prompted them to agree to move the business to the proposed office tower. And the project's developer shook hands with County Ex-ecutive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III on the deal to dismantle and move the house.
The developer, Howard S. Brown, is raising money for the executive's re-election campaign, and his company has contributed money to the campaign of 3rd District Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, who brokered the deal with the executive. The elected officials have denied even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Asked yesterday whether the arrangement raised ethical questions, Mr. Brown said, "I have no comment."
Mr. Pertman defended Mr. Brown, saying, "If I thought this guy acted with any duplicity, we would not be doing business with him."
The hearing ended with Judge Schneider telling Mr. Pirone that he could renew his complaints about the deal while seeking damages in a later hearing.
"It looks like the landlord has outfoxed the debtor here, and by that I'm not saying the landlord did anything illegal, immoral or untoward," the judge said. "The landlord came up with a way to get around what the debtor didn't want him to do. We'll see later whether it was illegal or immoral or untoward or should give rise to damages."
Meanwhile, David Miller, a doctor and a partner in the company that owns the Owings House, pledged to carefully move it.
"I'm in love with the house," he said. "We're going to take care of it."