February 20, 2004

Beware when you turn over a rock, the old adage goes, because you never know what you'll find underneath. It would appear that a subsidiary of Pettinaro Construction riled up a bevy of angry residents when it agitated many rocks by tearing down part of an old stone wall in its Paladin Club condominium community.

About 75 of them showed up at a community meeting on Feb. 19 not only to protest what one called "the wanton destruction of an historical resource" but also to plot strategy to oppose the company before county authorities and possibly in court.

The meeting was unusual in two respects, according to Jim Jones, president of the Paladin Club Master Association, under whose auspices the meeting was held. It was the first time in current memory that members of all four condominium associations in the community have mustered around

an issue and the first time that no official of Edgewood Village Llc., the building firm's Paladin development subsidiary, didn't show up at a condominium association meeting.

Since the controversy broke out in late January, company officials have not responded to Delaforum requests for comment.

Lawyer Richard Abbott told the meeting that it is too soon to determine whether there is any way to compel restoration of the wall, but that his research of property deeds so far has produced a strong indication that condominium ownership rights of residents along Paladin Drive may enable them to block a pending

County official James Edwards (right) makes a point at a Paladin Club community meeting. Other presenters are lawyer Richard Abbott (seated) and Jim Jones, president of one of four condominium associations in the community.

proposal by the company to build townhouses with 38 units on the hillside at the base of which the wall stood.

What's more, Abbott said, a somewhat quirky arrangement, which evidently goes back to the original Paladin development company, may enable them to exert control over the community clubhouse, tennis courts and swimming pool.

James Edwards, inspections manager for the county Department of Land Use, announced that the department has rejected an Edgewood Village plan to stabilize the hillside by leveling off its slope.  "We sent it (the plan) back to their drawing board" with orders to come up with something less intrusive and in line with "our desire to preserve as much as possible the status quo," he said.

Residents previously had expressed concern that stabilization could be undertaken in such a way as to preclude reconstruction of the wall. As Delaforum previously reported, Wendy Danner, Edgewood Village's lawyer, said at a land use administrative hearing on the county's order to halt demolition of the wall that stabilization "would be a solution to what we're here for today."

Although Edwards said he "is not sure we (the county) have the power to order them to put back the wall," he said it is intended to formally move the question of its significance before the autonomous Historic Review Board. A county inspector reportedly had advised the board that the wall had no historic significance.

Paladin resident Roy Jackson vehemently disagrees with that conclusion. He said it is "at least 150 years old" and, along with the clubhouse, a remnant of the William Sellers family estate. The Sellers, in turn, were involved with Edgemoor Iron Works, "which built bridges all over the world," Jackson said.

He has proposed to the review board that it establish an historic zoning overlay on the entire Paladin complex, which is a redevelopment of the post-World War II Clifton Park Manor, an early suburban apartment complex.

"We want to preserve [the community's] historic values ... so we can live in history and not just look at it," Jackson told the meeting.

He said he has contacted a stonemason in Pennsylvania, who specializes in historic-related restoration, and was told that rebuilding the wall to something close to resembling the original structure could be done at a cost of between $200,000 and $300,000.

County Councilman Robert Weiner, who represents the area, said "a proper remedy [for violating county development law] might be recreation of the wall using the historic rocks."

Edwards stopped short of advocating restoring the wall, but did point out that Edgewood Village is under an order to preserve the rocks against that possibility.

Yet to be determined is whether taking down the wall amounted to jumping the gun on a significant element of a development plan which has not been approved. That would violate the Unified Development Code.

Abbott said an even more lethal economic weapon might well be exerting rights evidently granted by the deed by which the former developer, Tall Trees Associates, conveyed the 53-acre Paladin property to Pettinaro, the successful bidder in a court-ordered bankruptcy auction, in 1993. It states that condominium owners who bought properties from Tall Trees retain all ownership rights that went with those sales.

One of the rights, Abbott said, is apparent joint ownership of Paladin Drive, a private road, and much of the hillside. Without clear title to the hillside, he explained, Pettinaro cannot build the townhouses. At best, he said, the firm may own outright enough land for about 10 units and that could easily render the proposed project uneconomic.

On the other hand, Abbott said his research seems to indicate that joint ownership title to the clubhouse, tennis courts and swimming pool was never turned over to condominium owners, although sales literature and other material refer to them as common amenities.

That came as news, and something of a shock, to several at the meeting who thought they were. They have been paying $50 a month toward maintenance and operation of those facilities under a provision in the contract by which they purchased their units.

Although the contracts do not specify ownership rights, Abbott said, a court is likely to entertain a strong 'equity' argument that having collected the fees for several years under such apparent pretense, conveys a comparable interest in them.

2004. All rights reserved.

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