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Mobtown Beat

The Green Zone

City Council representatives introduce zoning bill that supports developer with troubled past

A brochure for the Castlewood Community Center.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 2/10/2010

At first glance, the zoning change to the 600 block of Baker Street, which is backed by city officials, appears routine. It would aid developer Castlewood Communities in building "spacious, maintenance-free homes" for "active seniors," according to the company's brochure. The project has been shepherded through the complex city bureaucracy in part by Al Barry of AB Associates, a respected former chairman of the nonprofit Citizens Planning and Housing Association; the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood is on board, according to City Councilman William Cole (D-11th District), who co-sponsored the zoning bill introduced by Councilwoman Belinda Conaway (D-7th District) at the Feb. 1 council meeting.

But on closer inspection, the deal appears to illustrate city government's practice of affording a second chance to developers with less-than-perfect records.

The man behind the development, William Green, is being sued by several suppliers, has open judgments totaling more than $140,000 against him and his companies, and in 2007 faced sanction by the Securities Commissioner of Maryland for alleged securities violations, according to documents. In a bizarre and sensational case from the 1990s, Green was convicted of the theft of a dead dog.

Green explains the securities case as a series of unfortunate misunderstandings and the dead-dog conviction as a vendetta and a conspiracy. He touts his 30-year career as a housing developer in several states and says city officials questioned his past during the process that led to his company receiving nine building lots in Sandtown-Winchester for $11,000 last year. "I had to get the attorneys to explain it all," Green says, "to show the proof."

Castlewood Communities was founded on June 26, 2008, as "Creative Building Concepts," the name changed two weeks later. A web site for the company describes a senior-housing community with amenities that include an exercise room, beauty salon, and convenience store.

"'No more worries,' is how those who live in one of our communities describe their lives now," according to a downloadable, one-page brochure. Yet the web site's list of available communities lists only "Castlewood Community Center" and Baker Street, which for now is a vacant lot. The phone number in the brochure rings an apparently unrelated mortgage company.

"That's one of the partners," says Green when told about the number. "I had nothing to do with that brochure."

Green says his plan calls for 50 units of senior housing, each with a balcony and in-suite laundry facilities. He projects the cost at $5 million and plans to pay for it by syndicating federal low-income housing tax credits. "The concept behind them is, the ultimate development is owned by community- based nonprofits," Green says. "We go in and get everything ready for them, but the ownership stays in the community. They participate in the management, the subsidies, etc." The projects are small scale--"no more than a city block," and built for neighborhood residents.

Green says he hopes to do another city and federal-backed project in Walbrook Junction, "but I don't have the Walbrook Junction piece from the city yet."

City Housing officials did not immediately respond to City Paper's request for information about the project, but available records show that at least five of the nine properties the city sold to Green last year were part of Project 5000, former Mayor Martin O'Malley's ambitious program to return at least 5,000 vacant, city-owned properties to productive use. In a 2006 interview, Baltimore Housing officials overseeing Project 5000 and a related program called SCOPE, told City Paper that the perceived slow pace of sales and redevelopment stemmed in part from the city's desire to make sure only qualified bidders--those with a solid line of credit--got the cheap city properties on sale. It is unclear if the city's policies changed with the softening of the real estate market.

"I don't think Al [Barry] takes on a client without vetting him first," says Cole, adding that he signed on because the neighborhood was already in favor. Calls to Conaway's office were not returned before deadline. Barry's office did not return a phone call, though his aide did supply Green's cell phone number and refer questions to him.

Green served as secretary, promoter, and part owner of Synvest Inc., which reportedly paid $50,000 restitution to an investor in 2007 amid an investigation by the Maryland Division of Securities. Synvest started life as a real-estate investment trust, a tax-advantaged corporate structure with its own set of complex rules, including, Green says, one that requires at least 474 investors. Green says those rules clashed with a Virginia law that limited unregistered securities to 30 investors or fewer. "The attorneys made a mistake, I guess," Green says. The Maryland Attorney General discovered the error and the problems started, he says, ending in a settlement requiring Synvest to return all of its investors' money.

"There was no wrongdoing," Green says. "Nobody stole any money or sold anything they weren't supposed to be selling." He says everyone was repaid with interest--though some investors were left unhappy, because their ownership stakes were thought to be worth more than they were repaid.

In its order to show cause, the Division of Securities, which is part of the state attorney general's office, alleged that "in making offers to potential investors," Green "omitted material information regarding, among other things, the prior failed business ventures of, bankruptcies filed by, and litigation against, Green and companies he controlled; the prior business experience, salaries, and employers of Green; current financial statements of Synvest" and other relevant financial information. The division also said the Synvest prospectus also "contained material, misleading statements regarding Synvest's relationship to another failed company called Mortgage Originations Network Inc.

In 1996, Green filed bankruptcy amid lawsuits from customers of Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park, a Howard County pet cemetery he owned and operated. The Baltimore Sun published more than 20 stories about the ensuing controversy, including lurid allegations of Green's employees mistreating the remains of customers' pets (including Willie II, former governor William Donald Schaefer's Labrador retriever), descriptions of deceased pets rotting in unpowered refrigerators, and Green delivering the wrong ashes to a customer. He was eventually convicted of one count of theft for that case (theft of the remains), and sentenced to 18 months of unsupervised probation. He was also ordered to pay thousands of dollars in restitution to customers. The cemetery fell into foreclosure, and customers interviewed by The Sun's reporters bewailed their lost money, missing monuments, and unmarked graves of their beloved dogs and cats.

"The Sun papers did go insane on it," Green says. "I had sold the cemetery to Jerry Rosenbaum. I hadn't been out there in months when it happened."

Green says he held only the mortgage on the cemetery when the mismanagement occurred, and in trying to correct the problems, he ended up taking the blame. "There was an actual conspiracy . . . to get the cemetery away from me," Green says, reprising (and modifying) a story he told back in 1996. "One of the things that Jerry had done, sold like 3,000 or 4,000 graves basically for nothing, like a dollar or something--these were premium packages with grave markers, etc." Customers demanded service on these contracts, but Green could not afford to service them, and Rosenbaum had not given them receipts, Green says: "It became an absolute nightmare."

(A volunteer organization that took over the cemetery says on its blog that it could not find records reflecting Rosenbaum's alleged ownership.)

Green says the delivery of the wrong ashes to customers was a mistake. "Someone called asking for delivery," he says. "I called the girl [at the cemetery], she told me where the ashes were, I picked them up and delivered them." The remains of that customer's dogs, Suzy and Tessa, were later found rotting in a freezer after power was cut to the cemetery. The Sun tracked down the dogs' owners and interviewed them at length. They could not be reached for comment for this story.

Green says he had to threaten a lawsuit to get The Sun to "back off."

Reporter Dana Hedgpeth, now with The Washington Post, says she has "no idea what [Green]'s talking about." She says she worked the story so hard because she kept getting tips and leads after the initial piece.

The judge in Green's theft case found his conspiracy theory--at that time involving a female employee whose sexual advances Green said he had rebuffed--unbelievable as well, according to the Sun's reporting of the trial: "I listened to Mr. Green's explanation and that's just not believable to me," Howard County District Court Judge James N. Vaughan said.

Today, Green says, the key thing to remember is that the elderly-housing project will be owned by a nonprofit community-development corporation, not Green's company.

"I have the ability to do a development," Green says. "Will I make mistakes? Absolutely I will make mistakes. Have I done anything in my past that was so horrendous I should be crucified for it? I don't know, I'll let others be the judge."

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