For 12 years, a group of residents at the Annapolis Roads subdivision along the Chesapeake Bay did not relent. They were fighting a group of absentee landowners in their development who wanted to build luxury condominiums on a golf course and on 17 acres that included a beach.
Attorney bills rose to more than $160,000. Residents moved or died. Patience grew short. But now the persistence has paid off.
As part of a settlement reached earlier this year, the residents have won the right to refurbish eight acres into a beachfront park for Annapolis Roads residents, while the landowners won the right to develop nine acres into luxury condominiums. The golf course will remain as is.
"It just goes to show you that a community can win if you stick together," said John W. Coche, president of the Annapolis Roads Property Owners Association. "You don't have to let the developer have everything."
The attorneys for the landowners, Richard Brice and James Underwood, declined to comment. "You can extract anything you want from the court files; they're public record," Underwood said. "It's all there in black and white."
When the settlement was signed last March, the residents immediately went to work. The eight-member Annapolis Roads board set aside $6,500 to renovate the beach and formed a three-member beach committee. The committee drafted plans and hired a contractor to clear the thickly wooded area leading to the beach. For the past three months, a group of residents has spent its weekends cutting trees, hauling logs, clearing brush and making picnic tables.
"You couldn't walk down this beach a couple months ago," said Mike Carey, a member of the beach committee and a board member. "When the contractors first met us here, we had to search around through the brush and trees to get to the beach."
Annapolis Roads is a community of more than 235 families located just outside Annapolis on a peninsula bounded by Carrollton Road, Lake Ogleton and the Chesapeake Bay. On the north side is the new luxury condominium complex, the Villages of Chesapeake Harbour. To the south, is Bay Ridge, a small bayfront residential community with a private marina.
In the 1920s, Annapolis Roads was laid out as a posh country club community with a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts and a swimming pool geared toward attracting wealthy Washington and Baltimore residents to this summer resort. But during the Depression, the club virtually shut down. The additional nine holes of the golf course were never built and over the years parcels of land were sold to home builders. The only remnants of the club are found on a portion of the beach where there are sand- and driftwood-covered tiles that were once part of an open-air, waterfront deck.
The community has attracted retired servicemen, doctors and lawyers and a steady flow of young professionals. Houses range from $80,000 to more than $300,000 and residents must pay 50 cents for every $100 of assessed value in extra real estate taxes because they are part of a special taxing district. Without this tax, Coche and other supporters of the suit would have never been able to pay the legal fees and keep up the fight that began in 1974.
It was then that the residents said they first heard that the absentee landowners wanted to build high-rise condominiums on the heavily wooded terrain. After several months of discussing the plans with the developer's lawyers in a series of letters, the residents realized they were involved in a bigger fight than they had imagined.
By 1976, Coche said the Annapolis Roads residents decided to fight the developer and dubbed the landowners The Syndicate.
What ensued over the next 11 years was a battle of words, memos and the filing of reams of legal documents in Anne Arundel County Court. On one side, the developers claimed they were entitled to build the high-rise condominiums on the 17 acres and on the golf course while the residents argued that many of their original titles promised them that the golf course and beach would remain undeveloped. In fact, the original plans of the community mark the 17 acres and the golf course land as open space.
The case was complex, at one point forcing the residents' attorney, Leonard E. Moodispaw, to dig deep into land records to find the original plans for the community, which were eventually located in a national historical trust in Boston. In addition, each aspect of the eventual settlement of the case had to be signed by each resident involved in the suit.
"The files were so large that they had to dedicate an entire room for them," Moodispaw said. "It wasn't just going down and arguing over your standard real estate case. One homeowner could have screwed up the whole case if they decided not to sign the agreement."
At various stages throughout the 11 years, the residents' board met almost every night to decide what action to take next. At the board's annual meetings, some residents grew increasingly restless as the years passed and questioned whether it was worth it for their tax dollars to cover the legal fees.
"Some people wanted to know what we stood to gain by continuing to fight," said Bob Savin, who was a two-term president of the property owners' association. "From time to time, a lot of people would call me saying, 'Gee, what's this lawyer doing for us?' But he was telling us time was on our side. He didn't want us to try to battle it out in court because it was going to cost us more money and we might lose."
The homeowners association was into its fifth presidency when the settlement was finally reached in March. Annapolis Roads' attorneys had 60 days to get 286 people to sign the settlement. The final signature was obtained 2 1/2 hours before the deadline, residents recalled.
"We were chasing people down in Italy," Coche said. "A lot of people originally named in the suit had moved. People who had fallen heir to the property didn't know anything about it. And for a lot of people, we had to take the time to explain exactly what they were signing and why. 'What are we giving up?' some asked."
Despite the years of trying to get the suit resolved, Toby Johnson, the community's public works director, said it has been worth the wait to preserve the community and get a piece of land that can be used by the residents.
"It was frustrating for everybody because it took such a considerably long period of time," said Johnson, who moved to the area 10 years ago. "But there was a lot of camaraderie to keep us together."