An independent counsel for the Montgomery County Planning Board says in a report released Wednesday that there is no evidence of improper conduct or undue influence in the 2000 approval of a housing development that a group of African American residents of Sandy Spring contend led to a century-old gravel access road being dropped from official maps.
Douglas Bregman, a Bethesda real estate lawyer, was appointed by the board in June to untangle a thicket of allegations that have caused a lengthy dispute between county officials and members of a community founded by freed slaves. With the road not on maps, community landowners were unable to acquire street addresses necessary for building permits and emergency vehicle responses. That left their land with little to no market value.
Sandy Spring residents said part of Dellabrooke, a 43-home development between Brooke and Gold Mine roads east of Chandlee Mill Road, was built across what they called Farm Road. Some of the new homes blocked access to their land from Gold Mine. In 2006, when a homeowner placed a chain across her property, access from Brooke Road was also lost.
The community’s situation improved in July when homeowners on adjacent properties allowed access through their land, connecting the Farm Road properties to Brooke Road. With that access restored, the county allowed the issuance of addresses to the Farm Road community.
Bregman’s 98-page report, based on interviews and documents, finds no wrongdoing and no evidence that Sandy Spring residents were improperly denied addresses. But questions remain about the approval of Dellabrooke.
U.S. Geological Survey maps from as early as 1908 show a non-public road through what would become Dellabrooke, the report says. But the road disappears from the maps after 1944, decades before construction of Dellabrooke. It was included on Maryland state tax maps in 1966, but not after the maps were redrafted in 1972, also long before Dellabrooke.
Bregman said a review of plans and surveys performed for Dellabrooke owner Warren Brown show nothing to suggest that the road was hidden from official view.
Sandy Spring residents also alleged that county planning officials suppressed or ignored allegations about Dellabrooke. In 2007, based on new surveying information provided by Sandy Spring landowners, the Maryland Department of Planning was preparing to restore Farm Road to the tax maps. But the state backed off after intervention by Adrian Gardner, attorney for the bi-county Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Gardner said he wanted state officials to know that there was ongoing litigation between the county and property owners over the road. The department eventually decided that it had acted “prematurely” in restoring Farm Road to the map.
Bregman said Gardner acted within ethical guidelines. “There is no evidence that any threats were made or that any pressure was applied by Mr. Gardner,” he said.
The report does acknowledge that park and planning officials need to improve their record-keeping and to develop a formal policy for the assignment of addresses.
Francoise Carrier, who chairs the Planning Board, called the report “an extremely thorough, comprehensive review.”
“I don’t see how there can be any more questions,” she said.
Steve Kanstoroom, an advocate for the Farm Road property owners, said the report did not delve deeply enough into how and why they were initially denied addresses. He also said that neither Bregman nor the Planning Board responded to repeated requests to see documents that Bregman was reviewing for his inquiry.
“The community has not seen a scrap of paper,” Kanstoroom said.
The report also fails to address, he said, allegations by former Montgomery County inspector general Thomas Dagley that state Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler quashed an investigation of the Farm Road matter. Gansler has denied the accusation.