Update 1: Elkton Sr. Housing Loses in Court, But Golden Parachute Firmly in Place

July 13, 2010

ELKTON– The Town of Elkton agreed Tuesday afternoon to settle a lawsuit brought by two citizens challenging the concessions made by the town to accomodate a proposed senior citizens housing project, after a Circuit Court judge refused the town’s motion to dismiss the case.

     After the ruling by visiting judge Raymond E. Beck to let the case go forward, both sides hammered out an agreement under which the town conceded it lacked the proper legal authority under town ordinances last December when it granted concessions and waivers of fees to an unrelated property at 110 Collins Street, owned by Cecil Bank, and sought to transfer those waivers to the Elkton Senior Housing Project on High Street.  The town also agreed to pay $4,000 in legal bills incurred by the plaintiffs, Robert Litzenberg and James Nicholson.

   In addition, the developer of the project,  the Ingerman Group, of New Jersey, agreed not to sue Litzenberg and Nicholson. Keith Baynes, the attorney representing Litzenberg and Nicholson, told the court that the developer had threatened to sue his clients for speaking out about and filing their lawsuit over the town’s handling of the project.

   But evidence presented in court also showed that the Town of Elkton has been busy changing ordinances in recent weeks to accomodate the developers, in what appeared to be a back up plan in case the town lost the lawsuit.  So, while previous town approvals and concessions for the project were voided by the court settlement, the town, the developer and other interested business entities will get a “do-over” under recently revised ordinances tailored to fit the senior housing project.

    Before the agreement was reached, Judge Beck observed, “It seems that whenever a mistake was found you’re (the town) backing up and changing the ordinances.” It appeared that the town was saying, “can we make it all retroactive” when the question, the judge said, was really “shouldn’t they have to start all over again?” 

   As a result of the settlement, that is exactly what will have to happen: the developer and Cecil Bank, the owner of the Collins street property that is to be sold to the developer under a separate agreement, will get a “do-over” through the town review process. Given the town board’s support of the project, the outcome is hardly in doubt. But opponents will have a chance to raise more questions in public meetings.

  UPDATE: The court hearing revealed that the Town of Elkton has repeatedly revised its ordinances in recent weeks to accomodate the Elkton Senior Housing project. (The project is a profit-making undertaking by The Ingerman Group of New Jersey, with more than $6  million in federal aid, most of which has been passed through the state government, according to records of the state Department of Housing and Community Development.)

    Plaintiff’s attorney Keith Baynes pointed out that the senior housing project did not meet the minimum acreage requirements for such a project in Elkton under town ordinances in place at the time the concessions were made. The required acreage was 1.2 acres but a few weeks ago, a site plan submitted to town planning officials showed that the site was .2 acres short. So the developer, and representatives of the politically-connected Cecil Bank, asked the Cecil County government to sell more than 3,897 square feet of nearby county-owned land to the project. After a brief public hearing at which no citizens spoke out, the county commissioners voted in a subsequent work session in June to sell the land to the developer for $14,925. ( No independent appraisal of the land was performed, sources told The Cecil Times.)  Norman Wilson, the county attorney, signed off on the deal. Wilson also represented the Town of Elkton in Circuit Court on Tuesday.

   With the county land ostensibly in hand, the senior housing project would seem to meet the 1.2 acreage requirement. But, apparently taking no chances, the Elkton town board held a 4-minute public hearing in late June, at which no citizens spoke, and subsequently approved, on July 7, a revision to town zoning ordinances allowing a senior housing project to be located on just 1 acre of  land.  Judge Beck on Tuesday questioned that action, saying, “It seems that whenever a mistake was found, you’re backing up and changing the ordinances.”

   Attorney Baynes told the court Tuesday that the key issue was that, under town ordinances then in effect, the town lacked the legal authority to grant the Cecil Bank-owned property concessions on water and sewer and other fees that were then transferred to the Ingerman Group’s senior housing project. Under the settlement reached Tuesday, the town conceded that point.

   Baynes pointed out that the Ingerman group did not actually own the Collins Street property, or the High Street properties on which the actual 60-unit apartment project was to be located, at the time the concessions were made. He noted that the recent town board changes in relevant ordinances require an applicant for concesssions to actually own the properties in question. So as part of the “do-over” the developers would have to actually purchase the properties before being eligible for the fee waivers and concessions.

  The Ingerman Group told the State Department of Housing and Community Development that the cost of the project was $10.8 million, state records show. However, David Holden, a self-described “development principal” of the Ingerman Group, told The Cecil Times Tuesday that the actual cost of the 60-unit project was now up to at least $11.5 million. Part of the increased costs related to the token sum paid to county government for the small parcel sold recently to the developer. But much of that figure is related to the undisclosed amount that the developer will have to pay to Cecil Bank (a subsidiary of Cecil Bancorp) for the Collins Street property.

    The Collins Street property was not included in initial filings either with the state housing agency or the town of Elkton. That additon suddenly surfaced a few months ago as part of the water/sewer/and related fee charges that the Town decided to waive and were a target of the lawsuit.

    The Collins Street property owned by Cecil Bank, which the developer has identified as a partial financier of the senior housing project, is a derelict property condemned by Elkton health officials, according to town records. Cecil Bank is under current order by the Federal Reserve to clean up its inventory of “non-performing assets,” federal records show.  The Collins Street property, which reverted to bank ownership after a borrower defaulted, would fall into such a category.

    (MORE UPDATES TO COME FROM THE CECIL TIMES)

UPDATE:  An email from Kimberly Kamp, assistant administrator for the Town of Elkton, states that the Ingerman Group has agreed to pay the $4,000 costs ordered by the Circuit Court to be paid to the winning plaintiffs for their legal fees. In court, it was stated that the town would have to pay those fees.  Considering that the Ingerman Group now has to do a “do over” with the town of Elkton on its various c0ncessions, zoning enhancements, etc., under the court ruling, the developer’s decision to take on the fees levied by the court raises new questions to be addressed by opponents of the town  processes on this project.


Michael Halter Files to Run Against Chris Eastridge for State’s Attorney

June 6, 2010

   Michael J. Halter, a veteran Deputy State’s Attorney for Cecil County, has filed as a Republican candidate for State’s Attorney to run against incumbent Democrat Christopher Eastridge, who appointed Halter as his deputy. Halter was once quoted as saying he would never run against Eastridge.

  Eastridge suffered an embarrasing slap in the face from the judicial nominating commission several months ago when he was passed over for recommendation to the Governor for an appointment to the Circuit Court to replace the retired Judge Dexter Thompson. The Governor recently appointed Democrat V. Michael Whelan, a veteran trial attorney and former assistant State’s Attorney, to the judgeship.

  Eastridge just filed for re-election as State’s Attorney on June 2, one day after Halter filed as a Republican candidate for the job, according to state Board of Elections records.

  To compound the political complexities, E.D.E. “Ellis” Rollins III filed as a Republican candidate for State’s Attorney last summer, so Halter and Rollins would face each other in the GOP primary. But Rollins has also hedged his political bets by applying for a judicial appointment. Although Rollins was passed over for the Thompson seat, Rollins remains on the recommended list for one other current vacancy on the Circuit Court, and yet another seat will be vacated in the fall with the upcoming retirement of Judge O. Robert Lidums.

 Rollins is a political newcomer, as is Halter. But as a Republican, Rollins’ chances of getting a judicial appointment from a Democratic governor seeking re-election this year seem slim. Although Rollins has not run for political office before, his grandfather served as the county’s State’s Attorney, state Attorney General and Circuit Court judge, and his father was also a  Circuit Court judge.

 Halter was a full-time prosecutor for much of his tenure with the local State’s Attorney’s office, unlike many of the assistant state’s attorneys who work on a part-time basis as prosecutors while handling civil matters in private practice. Halter joined the office in 2004 and was appointed the Deputy State’s Attorney by Eastridge in 2007, after the retirement of the long-time Deputy, David Parrack.  At the time of his appointment, Halter was quoted in an interview with The Cecil Whig as saying he would “never” run against Eastridge, although he expressed interest in the State’s Attorney job if his boss decided to leave and do something else.

  With a judgeship pass-over by the nominating commission, Eastridge has put his political future on the re-election block.  

  But this is, after all, Cecil County and all things political are often not quite what they seem. Halter’s entry into the GOP primary means that Rollins will have a very credible challenger. The Rolllins family name is golden in the county and Rollins has been a trial attorney but not a prosecutor, while Halter would bring intensive prosecutorial experience to the top job. An aggressive primary campaign could rough up Rollins even if he wins, giving Eastridge an advantage in a general election match-up with Rollins. But if Halter wins the Republican primary, it would set up an intriguing boss-deputy contest, assuming that Halter would want to criticize his former mentor.

   But Halter has not been shy about criticizing some Cecil County judges. He drew some fire in the past for openly criticizing what he saw as  unwarranted leniency toward defendants by some judges, especially Judge Thompson.

Halter has set up a private law practice website, http://www.myelktonlawyer.com/home.html on which he touts his experience prosecuting over 2,000 cases with the State’s Attorney’s office but also emphasizes his skills as a criminal defense attorney who “knows the weaknesses of the State’s case” and would “get the best results for his clients.”  It could not be confirmed Sunday when he left his position as deputy to Eastridge.

  The Cecil Times has left phone messages for Halter and will update this report accordingly. Eastridge could not be reached for comment Sunday, with phone listings reported as disconnected.

NEWS UPDATE: The Cecil Times interviewed both men on Monday and posted a new article on their comments. The story is here:

https://ceciltimes.wordpress.com/2010/06/08/states-attorney-contest-gets-heated-update/