- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2001

A Bethesda couple yesterday filed an appeal to overturn a judge's ruling that denied them ownership of a one-third-acre lot they bought last year from Montgomery County for $252,500, the result of a County Council error in not holding a public hearing and vote before the sale.
Nenad and Vesna Mirkovic also suspect that a County Council decision last month to add the lot at 7522 Oldchester Road to a list of property targeted for preservation was meant to lower the price tag for the county's mistake, said Lee Boothby, the couple's attorney.
Land identified in the county's Legacy Open Space list cannot be built on for three years while the county considers options for preserving it from development, said council spokeswoman Jean Arthur. Preservation options range from acquisition to easement and, as a last resort, eminent domain.
"For the Mirkovics, the ideal situation would be if the county would find a property and put them in it," Mr. Boothby said.
Representatives for the county and the Mirkovics are scheduled to meet with a mediator today.
But the couple's request may be a hard sell to county officials, who said they made a reasonable offer to buy back the land and reimburse the Mirkovics for closing costs and legal expenses after residents of the English Village neighborhood began pressing the county to keep the land undeveloped.
Village property owners hired lawyers who argued that, after the county scrapped plans to build a road there in the 1960s, the county's maintenance of the property and installation of a sidewalk across it made the lot a de facto park.
Mr. Boothby said comparable parcels in the same school district — a key factor in the Mirkovics' decision — have been valued at more than $400,000 and up to $575,000 less than a year after his clients bought the disputed lot.
The Mirkovics have since paid mortgage interest, property taxes and legal fees.
"I don't want to foreclose any reasonable solution that makes sense to the county," said County Attorney Charles W. Thompson, adding that the county has a duty to taxpayers and he isn't sure that all of the Mirkovics' expenses have been necessary.
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's spokesman, David Weaver, said the county had "gone quite far" to accommodate the Mirkovics and doubted officials would want to involve the county in purchasing property for private use.
"We're in the real estate business for the public sector," Mr. Weaver said. "The process of disposing of the property could have and should have been handled better."
Mr. Weaver said that although the county's real estate division followed the letter of the law in advertising the sale, the situation with the Mirkovics has shown them they should do more to ensure communities are aware when an undeveloped property is being sold.
The Mirkovics' appeal argues that the county did not err in selling the property, challenging the notion the sale created the abandonment of a public right of way.
Mr. Boothby said the couple had agreed to let the county reroute utility lines to the side of the property and put a new sidewalk there so neighbors could still use the land as a route to walk to schools and a nearby synagogue.
The Mirkovics are considering suing the County Council in federal court on grounds the council's action to preserve the land violates constitutional protections against taking property without just compensation.
Meanwhile, the Mirkovics' lawsuit against the county for damages is scheduled to be heard Sept. 24 in Montgomery County Circuit Court.


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