Building Owner Vows To Fight Town Takeover Glenside Legally Seized The Building, But Larry Baird Refused Its Offer. A Court Will Now Decide The Compensation.

Posted: January 18, 1998

GLENSIDE — This year, the burned shell of a brick office building on Easton Road is scheduled to become Cheltenham Township's newest parking lot - but apparently not without a legal battle.

That's because Larry Baird, one of the building's owners, says he has been treated unfairly by the township, which is in the process of taking the building through eminent domain.

Just a few weeks ago, the township made its final offer to Baird: $162,000 for the property. But in an interview, Baird said the fight was just beginning.

He has decided not to take the money, despite advice from his lawyer, Ralph Friedman of Jenkintown, and his brother and business partner, Terry. Instead, the matter will automatically go before Montgomery County Court, which will decide how much the township will have to compensate Baird.

``I know the township will get the property. But I'm going to make it as hard for them as I can,'' said Baird, who operated two medical-supply companies out of the Glenside building. Those businesses are now located in Abington.

Baird, with his brother and father, still owns Wesley Apothecary a few doors down from the burned building.

Once they paid off their $150,000 mortgage with the insurance settlement from the 1995 fire, caused by faulty wiring, they began filing for the township permits necessary to restore their building, Baird said. That was in fall 1996.

But when no construction had been done by April 1997, Cheltenham officials decided to take the building by eminent domain and use about $200,000 from the township's capital-reserve fund to build a parking lot.

Baird said they had disregarded his business plans for political reasons.

According to court documents, the building across the street is owned in part by Ralph Buchsbaum, a real-estate partner of Robert Lam, a former township commissioner. Baird said the value of Buchsbaum's building, which is leased to a state liquor store, would increase with the additional parking. The project would thus benefit an old political ally of Cheltenham's leaders, he said.

``What you're looking at is an opportunity for the political participants to put somebody out of business to . . . enhance their own wealth,'' Baird said.

Township officials denied Baird's allegations. ``He's got an imagination; I'll leave it at that,'' said Township Manager David Kraynik. ``I have no idea who owns the property across the street, and it has nothing to do with our desires to build a parking lot. It's part of our economic development of Easton Road, pure and simple.''

Lam emphatically denied any involvement in the township's decision to create more parking, saying: ``I wasn't even aware it was going on.''

He added: ``I'm delighted to hear they're considering more parking for Glenside. When I was a township commissioner about 20 years ago, it was something I fought for then. I think it will help the entire community.''

A local real-estate broker, Burt Gold of Century 21 Gold Associates in Melrose Park, agreed that a municipal lot would benefit all the nearby businesses. ``But really, it will only increase property values slightly,'' he said.

Commissioner Robert C. Gerhard Jr., who represents the district, said: ``We met with Baird a year after the building burned. . . . When he told us that they wanted to renovate, we told them what needed to be done. . . . But it just sat and sat. . . . It's a terrible eyesore in Glenside.''

The building has no roof and is stabilized by a chain-link fence. In a stretch of businesses that includes a print shop, a bank, a thrift shop and a couple of bars, the building looks more characteristic of a neglected neighborhood than of middle-class suburbia.

Baird said that wasn't his intention.

He said he had obtained a zoning variance for the site because he wanted to expand the building slightly, but he did not file a complete land-development plan until April - after the township had begun condemnation proceedings.

How and why that happened is a matter of disagreement. According to township zoning officer David Lynch, Baird could have done all the paperwork at the outset, had he wanted to spend the money while running the risk that the variance would not be granted. That option is not mentioned in the township's procedures, though Lynch said he regularly advised developers of the choice.

``I don't understand why they didn't tell me what I needed before it came to condemnation,'' Baird said, maintaining that he had spent more than $5,000 to meet all the township requirements quickly.

Said Kraynik: ``Not at any time did we delay him or mislead him about the responsibilities in terms of plans. We were very up-front. If anyone sat on this project, it was him.''

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