A $220 million project to give Owings Mills a town center was dealt another setback yesterday as a Baltimore County judge said a legal battle between the state and the land's former owners is not likely to be resolved quickly.
Circuit Judge Christian M. Kahl indicated that he thought the former owners - who lost 137 acres to condemnation years ago and say the state violated a repurchase agreement - have made a compelling case. The former owners are demanding more than $50 million in damages.
The dispute is over 46 of the 137 acres used as commuter parking lots surrounding the Owings Mills Metro station. The state wants to convert those lots into homes, offices, shops, a hotel, a library and a community college, and has signed a 99-year lease with developers.
Kahl did not rule on competing motions from the state, which asked for an immediate ruling to let the project proceed, and the former owners, who asked for a trial. He did say, "I think we're going to wind up having some kind of dispute."
The judge said he will decide how to proceed after giving the former owners, Painters Mill Venture, a partnership of real estate investors, a chance to reply to court papers filed by the state this week.
In 1988, Painters Mill Venture had to give up the 137 acres for construction of the Northwest Expressway and the Metro tracks, station and parking lots. At the time, the state signed an agreement giving the partnership the right to repurchase any of the land not needed for those purposes before doing anything else with it.
The state and Baltimore County began making plans to develop the commuter lots in the mid-1990s. No one mentioned the repurchase agreement until October, when Painters Mill contacted the state.
In April, the state sued Painters Mill, asking the court to declare the repurchase agreement invalid. Painters Mill, whose managing partner is Jack Baylin, filed a counter-suit in May.
In court yesterday, Assistant Attorney General Janet Bush Handy said that regardless of the agreement's validity, the 46 acres is not surplus because the state still needs to have commuter parking there. Multistory garages would replace the surface lots.
Jeffrey H. Scherr, a lawyer representing Painters Mill, referred to an internal memo in which state officials call the land surplus. Of the state's legal argument, he said, "Frankly, your honor, I can't figure out what the state is saying."