Couple's home located in path of Bethel AME Church project; Inexact property line causes dispute over access to right of way


Down Old Court Road, where the subdivisions of Randallstown dissolve into the cornfields and woods of Patapsco Valley, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church hopes to build a church for its growing suburban membership.

But first, the church will have to go around -- or through -- Janice and Owen Weaver's house.

The Weavers' two-story house sits on a right of way Bethel wants for access to its 255-acre property near Granite.

Though neighbors worry that Bethel's large church will disrupt the tranquillity of the neighborhood by adding traffic to rural roads and taxing wells, the Weavers fear they might lose their home.

"We love this place," said Janice Weaver, sitting in a small, homey living room, clutching a stack of old deeds. "It's always been peaceful and quiet."

Their ability to hold on to their home might come down to an ancient property rights doctrine known as squatters' rights.

The Weavers' house apparently sits partly on Bethel's property and an easement the church is claiming to gain access to the land. Surveys conducted this month indicate the property lines cross on the stairs in the Weavers' living room.

Bethel wants the Weavers to move.

"If there are improvements [buildings] in the right of way, we would expect them to be moved," Bethel's attorney, Robert Hoffman, told the Weavers at a community meeting several weeks ago.

"They are trying to scare us," said Owen Weaver. "They aren't coming, no matter what."

The Weavers have known for years that property lines with their neighbors are inexact. One neighbor's well sits on their property, he said. He had heard that part of his house sat on the Bethel land.

The boundaries never mattered much until Bethel bought the land in March and hired engineers to design a site plan for its 3,000-seat church.

Bethel, one of the largest and most influential churches in Baltimore, wants to build a sanctuary with classrooms, offices, a fellowship hall and parking for more than 1,300 cars. The church might build a broadcast studio.

But its land has only a small amount of road frontage. Preliminary plans submitted to Baltimore County show access to the tract by two rights of way.

One is a 16-foot easement on the east shared by several houses. The other, on the west, is an 18-foot easement that would travel roughly up the Weavers' driveway, through several large trees that shade their home, then through their enclosed porch and several sheds behind their house.

'Confusing mess'

How the Weaver house ended up straddling a right of way and a property line is unclear.

"This is a big, confusing mess," Janice Weaver said.

The Weavers' land and the Bethel property apparently once were part of a large estate owned by the Worthington family. Over the years, the land was divided among Worthington heirs until early this century, when the Weavers' and several neighboring lots were created.

Surveyors, relying on sight measurements and marking boundaries with stones and trees, might have made a mistake at that time. "There are lots and lots of boundaries between properties, and lots and lots of misunderstandings," said Garrett Power, a law professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Another possibility is that the person who built the Weaver house before 1925 might not have paid attention to where property lines were.

When the Weavers bought the house and 3 1/2 acres in 1985, the exact boundaries weren't an issue. The couple didn't have a bank loan that would have required a land survey, and they saw no reason to survey the land.

Owen Weaver knew the land well because he had worked for the previous owner's landscape business since 1967, even spending weekends there.

But who has access to which properties is in dispute.

Hoffman said the church has access to its property through an easement conveyed in the property deed.

The Weavers disagree.

Both sides are trying to determine the next move. Bethel, which has submitted preliminary drawings for its church, has a year to submit a development plan to Baltimore County.

Although the property's rural conservation zone allows a church, Bethel will have to respond to concerns about developing the land, including the effect on roads and the environment.

Janice Weaver said she was amused listening to county officials tell Bethel that it will have to provide landscaping and screening to shield the church from neighboring properties. "What are they going to do, plant trees in our kitchen?" she asked.

Bethel's development plan will be reviewed regardless of property rights disputes. The boundary issues might have to be settled separately in court unless the two sides can reach an agreement.

Owen Weaver said that is not impossible. He has said he would sell his house and land to Bethel if the church pays him enough to move his landscaping business.

He has had the land surveyed and is looking for a lawyer. Although he has title insurance that protects his claim to the land, the policy appears to exclude boundary disputes.

Several area property lawyers say the case might hinge on squatters' rights -- known legally as adverse possession.

"It goes all the way back to the beginning of English law and even Roman law," Power said.

'More factual searching'

In Maryland, a person may claim title to land he doesn't own provided he has openly occupied and paid taxes on the property for at least 20 years.

Though the Weavers have lived in their house about 15 years, they might be able to add their residency to that of the previous owner, who owned the house for more than 20 years, lawyers said.

Donald Mulcahey, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said the Weavers might have a good claim to their home, but added, "There is a lot more factual searching that has to go on." Proving an adverse possession case can be complicated, Power said. "I guess that is why they pay property lawyers big bucks."

Pub Date: 9/27/99

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