For years a bottle of champagne sat unopened in the refrigerator of Harry J. and Katherine M. Tomlin's Arlington house. Tuesday night, they finally popped the cork.
After countless meetings, years of frustration and the recollection of deals gone sour, the Tomlins and other property owners in Arlington's Courtlands neighborhood have achieved what they set out to do almost a decade ago: maximize their profits by selling their houses en masse to a developer.
Through the years, as deals appeared imminent, some Courtlands residents moved out and bought new houses, then found themselves paying two mortgages and tax bills. Some of the properties were boarded up. None of the owners wanted to invest to improve property that might soon be sold, and Courtlands became a neighborhood in decline.
This week 24 property owners were paid $14.75 million for 27 lots, $60 a square foot for land that now holds mostly modest, half-century-old brick and wood-frame houses.
Depending on the size of the lots, owners were paid from $235,000 to $1.18 million. The transaction concludes a deal in which the developer, the Moyarta Corp. of Virginia, paid almost $20 million to 30 property owners and assembled a 2 1/2-block site near the Court House Metro station, an area that is rapidly filling with high-rise buildings.
Six other owners holding seven parcels already had been paid $4.9 million, at the same rate of $60 a square foot, for their land in December. Except for some cases in which checks were to be mailed, all sellers had received their money by yesterday.
The price is about double what the properties would have brought if they had simply been sold as single-family houses, homeowner Thomas A. Clary and county officials estimated.
Moyarta, based in Middleburg, intends to seek county approval to build a high-density residential development of up to 1,600 units on the site, said Mauricio J. Gutierrez, vice president of the firm. When construction will start has not been decided yet, Gutierrez said. "We are starting now with our architectural, engineering and legal work," he said.
The houses' occupants, some of whom are renters, will be allowed to remain month to month until the firm is ready to proceed with the project, said Stephen MacMahon, a Moyarta executive.
The assembled site consists of two parcels, the larger one bounded by North 14th Street, North Wayne Street, North Barton Street and Fairfax Drive. A second parcel is composed of the north half of a block fronting North 14th Street between North Wayne Street and North Veitch Street.
"I had to have my check in my hand to believe it," said Katherine Tomlin, reflecting on the anxiety the neighbors have endured through the years as deals appeared imminent and then fell apart. "It's a terrific relief just to know it's finished," she said.
For homeowner Clary, the sale culminates a process he and a few neighbors began discussing in 1979. The Metro Orange Line was coming to their neighborhood and the county had designated the land for high rises.
"We all reached the conclusion that redevelopment of our neighborhood was inevitable and the question was not what would happen but when and who would control it," Clary said.
Rather than let speculators pick them off, "we voted to control our destiny, to band together and market the property ourselves," Clary said.
The original group consisted of about 40 homeowners, but they split into two after differences arose over what the selling price should be.
In January 1985, a group of 22 homeowners, including Clary, struck a $10 million deal with the Courchevel Corp. of Bethesda. In December, Courchevel said it could not settle because one of its partners had withdrawn. The 22 homeowners then negotiated two other deals, but both fell through.
In June 1985, a second group of 20 owners -- later 21 -- came to a $14 million agreement with Alexandria developer Robert M. Stein. It fell apart in December 1985.
The successful deal with Moyarta includes all but one of the properties that were part of the Courchevel deal, seven of the lots that were part of the Stein deal and two properties that were not part of any previous assemblage.
One property in the middle of the grouping was not sold to Moyarta because it is tied up in litigation. A spokesman for Moyarta said the firm will simply build around the disputed parcel if necessary. Twenty-two of the Courtlands neighbors have each contributed $20,000 to buy the house from owner Myrtle Melnick as a way of allowing her to share in the proceeds of the overall sale.
"I'm happy it's all over with, happy that it went one way or the other," said Frances A. Sauber, who has lived in the neighborhood for 47 years. Sauber will receive $600,000 for her wood-frame house on North Adams Street. "I guess it comes to all who wait."