Oella neighbors' dispute over access to Patapsco park leads them to court; Homeowner says trail is part of her property


Hugging the west side of Baltimore County, Patapsco Valley State Park is a green swath of forest traversed by trails that wind next to the Patapsco River and past ruins of old mill towns.

But in the town of Oella, on the park's edge, neighbors are embroiled in a legal dispute over how to get into this suburban oasis.

Trying to keep neighbors from using a trail that crosses her property on Race Road, Barbara Jensen and her husband have strung barbed wire across the path, blocked it with firewood and posted a sign warning trespassers to stay away. Though the barriers are now down, Barbara Jensen has filed suit against the developer and homeowners association, asking a county judge to keep people off the path.

Jensen's neighbors dispute her claims to the path and continue to hike and walk their dogs along the trail to enter the park. They say the trail belongs to their homeowners association.

"It bothers everyone in here that we are fighting against our neighbors," said Jean Frank, secretary of the Oella Homeowners Association.

But Frank said access to the park is important for residents.

"When we were sold our home, we were told we had direct access to the park," said Frank, who has lived in Oella 10 years. "It was a big factor."

For many years, Oella residents used the trail to enter the park, said Bruce Elliott, president of the Oella Homeowners Association. "A lot of us have always enjoyed access to the park," he said.

John Moreland, who has lived in Oella since 1995, said he walks his black Labrador retriever Butch on the path every day. "You get home from work and you want to take a walk down the trail. It's a stress reliever."

But problems began after Jensen purchased her property from Oella developer Charles Wagandt in December 1997.

Jensen contends that she bought the easement, or legal right of way into the park, when she bought her home. But in October 1998, Wagandt filed documents in Baltimore County Circuit Court conveying the easement and other public spaces in Oella to the Oella Homeowners Association.

Although the plat map of Jensen's property showed the easement, the deed did not explicitly reserve the easement for Wagandt or other users, said Jensen's lawyer, Stephen C. Thienel, who also lives on Race Road.

Wagandt said Jensen and the other property owners were informed of the easement when they purchased their homes and lots. "They all knew about it," said Wagandt, a descendant of the Oella mill operator. For years, the path was used by workers who maintained the millrace, he said.

When Wagandt began to redevelop Oella, he specified a public easement along the trail to give residents access to the park. "Nobody ever expected someone to come along and try to throw out the easement," he said.

But since purchasing her home, Jensen has contended with hikers and all-terrain vehicles passing through her yard, Thienel said.

In May, Jensen filed suit in Baltimore County Circuit Court against Wagandt and the homeowners association, asserting that she held title to the easement and that association members had no right to use the trail.

The association, of which Jensen is a member, responded, suing Jensen and another couple, Michael and Mary Parykaza, who own an adjacent lot through which the easement passes, asserting the right of its 150 members to use the path.

"We want to go to court and have all the questions answered so we will know what we can and cannot do," said C. William Clark, a lawyer representing the homeowners association.

The homeowners association wants the court to rule on who has the right to use the easement and where the easement is located.

Recently, the association voted to impose an assessment of up to $125 on each homeowner to pay to defend the claim.

The vote appears to mean that Jensen and Thienel, members of the association, also will have to pay the fee to fight themselves.

Wagandt has asked that the case against him be dismissed, saying he no longer has any claim on the easement.

Jensen would not comment, except to say the easement "has been a disruption in very many ways."

A hearing is set for this month, and a trial is scheduled for December.

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