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State jumps gun on port eviction


James G. Robinson is probably best known as the producer of such films as Young Guns, Pacific Heights and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.

But the Maryland native who got his start on the docks and still owns a small waterfront firm in Baltimore, said his latest drama has been nothing like what he's made up in Hollywood.

Robinson's company, Premiere Automotive Services Inc., has been embroiled in a four-year-old dispute with the port involving its lease of 6 acres owned by the state.

This week, the legal back and forth started to look a little like On the Waterfront as nine armed state transportation police officers and port officials cut locks and climbed through a window at Robinson's warehouse, arrested a worker for trespassing and seized control of 170 farm tractors being repaired in the lot.

"I don't believe what happened," said Robinson, from his Baltimore home. "It was out of a B-movie."

Earlier in the month, both sides agree, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court allowed the port to evict Robinson after failing to come to terms on a new lease. But a technicality required the port to wait 10 days before taking action against Premiere.

This is where things went awry for the port, which had been waiting since 2002 to resolve the dispute. It turns out the state didn't wait long enough.

The transgression has put the court, which was not on Robinson's side in the tenant-landlord dispute, back in his corner, at least temporarily. An angry judge now says said the port can't evict Premiere until an appeal is heard, possibly months from now.

For its part, the port believes its actions were warranted, even if the eviction was a few days early, said James F. Ports Jr., deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation. The department has authority over the Maryland Port Administration that runs the port.

"This has been going on for quite a long time," Ports said. "We appreciate our relationship with Premiere. When they came in the 1960s they had a lease. But frankly, in 2006, we do business a lot differently than 40 years ago."

Ports said it was a business decision to evict Premiere because the port could get a better return from another tenant.

Premiere's expired long-term lease was on Lot 90, a lot that's tucked into a corner of the Dundalk Marine Terminal, which handles most of the port's imports and exports of farm equipment.

During its four decades on the lot, Premiere had built a warehouse and offices for business of repairing scratched and dented farm equipment. Premiere once handled automobiles, but seeing a niche grow at the port, it moved to farm equipment.

But Robinson said the port's new lease would have required it to handle only work involving cars, which are smaller and less complicated than tractors.

Robinson said that stipulation and another that allowed the port to move Premiere away from its building with 180 days notice were unacceptable.

Without a new lease, Robinson filed for bankruptcy protection, fearing the loss of his business. He asked the bankruptcy court to force the port to negotiate a better lease.

But the court ruled against Robinson this month, saying the bankruptcy was filed in "bad faith," and that the port could impose its own lease terms. The court said Robinson could appeal to the U.S. District Court. The 10-day freeze, until June 19, was an automatic provision of bankruptcy law.

Peter W. Taliaferro, the assistant attorney general representing the port, told the court he misunderstood the ruling, according to court documents. On Monday, port officials came to Lot 90 at 5:30 p.m., supported by state transportation police, to order Premiere out by 9 p.m.

Ports, the state transportation official, defended police entering through an "open window" because the doors were locked. He also said the arrest of the employee was legitimate because the worker didn't leave by 9.

Bob Harrison, Premiere's general service manager, who watched the port officials and police descend on the lot from outside its gate, picked the worker up that night after his release. The trespassing charge against the employee will most likely be dropped, Ports said.

"When the judge gave us a favorable order - when we won - we decided to take action," Ports said. "We understand the judge was a little upset."

Indeed. When Robinson's lawyer, Charles S. Fax, got to Judge James F. Schneider on Tuesday morning, the judge said he was "appalled by what the state has done," according to court documents.

"Do I have to order the state to abide by the law?" he asked.

He called the port's contention - that it misunderstood the ruling - an "outrageous argument."

Schneider also held that the port's claim there was no break-in because it entered through an open window was "a typical defense in a burglary case." (The Plexiglas window is fixed but doesn't open.)

The episode was enough to prompt the judge to give the company a reprieve: Premiere can stay put on Lot 90 until its appeal is heard in coming months.

The gate is again unlocked. The Turkish-made red tractors and the American-made farm combines were lined in neat rows yesterday waiting to be worked on.

For his part, Robinson, 70, said he is a bit soured on his home state and the port where as a young man he developed his first successful business venture. He said his movies would be filmed elsewhere.

As a result of the dispute, he said Baltimore scenes in a forthcoming movie were shot in New York. The film, The Good Shepherd, a thriller starring Matt Damon, is set for release this year. Toronto was chosen for Man of the Year, a Robin Williams comedy.

"I started with nothing, fresh out of the Army," he said. "The state's been good to me. But now, I'm supposed to be enthusiastic about doing business here?"

An article in the Business section yesterday misspelled the name of a company operating at the port of Baltimore. It is Premier Automotive Services Inc.The Sun regrets the errors.
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