By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 14, 2006; B09
This can't be right, Dale McCarthy thought when she read the letter from the Maryland State Highway Administration a couple of weeks ago. It said the state was going to take a small part of her back yard to make way for the intercounty connector.
Knowing the planned highway would run near her Derwood home, the substitute teacher had been monitoring the progress of the $2.4 billion project, which received final approval from the federal government in May. But this was the first she had heard of the roadway claiming a sliver of her property. A few of her neighbors were also caught by surprise, McCarthy said yesterday in an interview before a Montgomery County Planning Board hearing on the design of the road.
Yesterday, state highway officials said that property owners who would be displaced by the project had been notified late last year, but the approximately 350 people who would lose just a part of their land did not officially receive word until last month.
The state waited to notify those owners because the plans did not become official until the federal government gave final approval to the six-lane, 18-mile tolled highway linking Interstate 270 in Montgomery and Interstate 95 in Prince George's, Melanie Peters, the project director, said in an interview yesterday.
Before then, the plans were in flux, she said. It wasn't clear who would have to give up pieces of property or how much property would be needed. If the state had told residents their land was in the right of way, and then later realized it wasn't, "we would have alarmed them for no reason," said David Buck, a spokesman for the highway administration.
Those who were being displaced by the project were told in November 2005, Peters said, because it was certain their homes would be claimed if the project was approved. About 60 property owners are being displaced, she said.
Peters said the state had gone out of its way to keep residents informed about the roadway, which has been debated for decades. There were 70 public hearings on the project, maps were posted online and mailings were sent to area homeowners, she said.
"We made every effort we could to keep people informed of the project," Peters said.
Buck said that if affected residents had come to the meetings and shown officials where they lived, "we would have said, 'Well, this is what may happen.' But, yes, it was incumbent on those folks to go out to the community meetings and see if their property would be affected."
An "overwhelming majority" of the people losing a part of their property knew about the possibility that it would happen long before the official notices went out, he said.
McCarthy said she did keep abreast of the project. "We are not uninformed people," she said. But she said the state should have been apprising residents who might lose parts of their property from the beginning. "I deserved to know the facts," she said. "I deserved to make a decision based on those facts."
Though the state might take just a small portion of her yard, McCarthy said the area is sacred to her. Twelve years ago, her 16-year-old son Justin was killed in a car crash. His ashes were spread in the back yard, which she and her husband have turned into a sanctuary, she said.
The state would pay for the land it takes, but McCarthy said there is no way to put a price tag on this particular piece of property.
"You can't come up with a dollar sign and take the land from us and think that's a compensatory amount," she said. "There isn't one for us. But not being told about it just hit us."
McCarthy and other residents and environmentalists packed the Planning Board meeting to protest the highway, saying the public is being shut out of the design process now that the project has been approved -- a charge officials denied.
In Shady Grove Woods, McCarthy wasn't the only one surprised to learn that she would be forced to sell a piece of her property. At least four other neighbors were stunned as well, said Connie McKenna, of the neighborhood homeowners association. "We don't know who is looking out for us," she said.
In Rockville, Eric Moreno said he, too, was shocked to learn that he'd lose part of his back yard. He said he went to one of the public meetings at a nearby school and was told, "There are going to be no problems with your property whatsoever."
Moreno, who owns a small business that improves the quality of indoor air, said he was "blindsided" when he got the letter a couple of weeks ago informing him that the state was, in fact, going to force him to sell a part of his property. "No one had said anything about this," Moreno said.
Daniel Chow, also of Derwood, said he learned at a public meeting several months ago that the state was considering taking a small part of his back yard. But when he tried to find out if that really would happen, the economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics said he got no answers until the letter arrived in his mailbox two weeks ago.
"I would have liked more communication and more input," Chow said. "I basically feel like I've been ignored."