Owners of Pimlico seeking to acquire parcels near track


The owners of Pimlico Race Course are trying to negotiate deals to acquire about a dozen parcels near the track as they seek room to expand for slot machine gambling.

The property includes houses and vacant lots in an area bordered by Northern Parkway and West Rogers and Winner avenues, according to racetrack officials.

"It's a tiny strip of land we don't own," said Maryland Jockey Club President Joseph A. DeFrancis. "We're not interested in pursuing the acquisition of any other property."

If the General Assembly approves slots, the property will be needed to provide more parking and to allow better traffic flow into and out of the racetrack, DeFrancis said.

The Jockey Club, through a real estate broker, is trying to get property owners to sign 90- to 120-day purchase options. It is offering to pay several times the assessed value of the parcels, records show.

An option gives the Jockey Club the right to buy at the specified price within a certain period of time. Each owner would keep a $5,000 deposit if the option to buy is not exercised.

"They are being offered a very generous price for the properties," DeFrancis said.

Among those to receive an offer was John E. Baker, who owns a vacant dwelling at 2700 W. Rogers Ave. He said he turned down the deal.

Baker bought the house in 1995 for $30,000. Under the proposed option agreement, he would receive $150,000 for the property if the option were exercised, according to a copy of the document.

Baker said he is only interested in a straightforward sale - not an option.

"I want to sell that house and be done with it," Baker said. "The only thing I trust is a certified check in my hand."

He said he wants $200,000 for his house, but DeFrancis said the Jockey Club is not about to pay that much.

"We're willing to pay a price for any property that we believe is fair, but not a ridiculous or exorbitant amount," DeFrancis said.

He said the track will just change its site plan designs if Baker refuses to sell. "We can't compel anyone to sell," DeFrancis said.

John A Meninger Jr., a real estate agent working for Baker, advised his client to take the deal in a letter dated Friday.

"I know that you feel that you should be getting more and are willing to hold out longer, but the Jockey Club knows that you only paid $30,000 in 1995 for the property and they feel that a five-fold profit is an excellent return on your seven-plus year investment," Meninger wrote in the letter, which was provided by Baker. "I believe that you should think very seriously about the amount of money you could be passing up."

But Baker, who has distributed fliers in the neighborhood encouraging others not to sell too cheaply, said he won't budge.

"I'm not backing down from these people," he said.

Baker was homeless for a time in the early 1980s and formerly worked as a groom at horse farms and then at Laurel Park and Pimlico.

He has been trying for several years to get DeFrancis to buy his house. Baker said he lived there until Preakness last year.

While he was away that day, he said, someone broke in and started a fire in the basement. Baker said firefighters broke doors and windows, and he ended up moving out. More recently, the vacant dwelling has become a haunt for crack users, he said.

Martin Jacobs, legal consultant to the Jockey Club, said several property owners have accepted the racetrack's offers.

"I'd rather not give an exact number, but a reasonable number have accepted," he said. "About half have accepted."

DeFrancis said the Jockey Club owns several parcels in the area bordered by Northern Parkway and West Rogers and Winners avenues and has long planned to buy the remaining properties.

"The only reason for not attempting to acquire those properties before now is that we had no need to provide additional parking and additional egress and ingress," DeFrancis said.

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