Montgomery County Board Delays Land Sale for Connector

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By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Montgomery County Planning Board plans to sell the state 87 acres of vacant land needed to build the intercounty connector, but not until Maryland highway officials take the commissioners' environmental concerns about the project more seriously.

Planning commissioners also said last week that before transferring the land, they want to gauge enthusiasm for the highway from Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley (D) and the newly elected Montgomery County Council, which has a more slow-growth bent than the previous council.

The state's purchase of the land from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission is one of many deals Maryland highway officials are negotiating with property owners along the 18-mile route between Gaithersburg and Laurel. Joseph Miklochik, director of real estate for the State Highway Administration, said any delay in acquiring the 87 acres would not affect the connector's construction.

"I don't think this is a big deal at all," Miklochik said after the vote. "We'll just get clarification to their questions, and we'll come back" for another vote.

The Park and Planning Commission bought the land over the past three decades to preserve it from development in case the highway, which has been in the county's master plan for more than 40 years, were ever built. Because the land was always intended for a highway, several commissioners said, they will eventually sell it to the state for the agreed-upon price of $7.5 million. However, they said, they wouldn't do so until the state addressed their concerns about some of the details in the construction plans.

Planning Commissioner Wendy C. Perdue said she wanted to know how the state planned to mitigate the effect on water quality in environmentally sensitive areas, among other concerns.

"I'm not holding back [on the land sale] to stop the ICC," Perdue said. "But this is a way to maybe build the ICC in a way we said it needs to be built."

Commissioner John M. Robinson said he wanted to make sure the highway's future had not changed with the November election. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) was one of the connector's primary champions and made it his administration's top transportation priority.

O'Malley has said he supports the highway. However, Robinson said, "I want an affirmation from the council and the [incoming] governor that this is still the transportation policy."

The sale delayed last week included four undeveloped parcels in the Shady Grove, Aspen Hill, Cloverly and Fairland areas. They include some forest and meadows and abut several neighborhoods.

The parcels include 16.8 acres between Shady Grove and Redland roads; 23.3 acres south of Briggs Chaney Road near Dogwood Drive; 26.7 acres south of Bonifant Road across from the Trolley Museum; and 20 acres east of New Hampshire Avenue, near Cape May Road. (More details are available at http://www.mcparkandplanning.org/board/agenda under "Archived Staff Reports" for the Dec. 7 meeting; click on Item 14.)

Highway opponents celebrated the land sale delay, even if it doesn't last long.

"It's a temporary victory," said Greg Smith, a longtime anti-connector activist. "But we're very happy the Planning Board stood up and did the right thing and demanded that state highway officials start answering some critical questions that they've put off too long."

Smith and five other highway opponents testified at last Thursday's hearing, asking that the land sale be delayed until the resolution of lawsuits that two environmental groups have announced intentions to file. Environmental Defense and the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club have said they plan to argue that vehicle pollution from the intercounty connector would violate the federal Clean Air Act.

The six-lane toll highway, which the federal government approved in June, is estimated to cost $2.4 billion, excluding financing costs, and will connect Interstate 370 near the Shady Grove Metro station with U.S. Route 1 near Laurel in Prince George's County. Work has already begun on several highway-related projects.

The Park and Planning Commission, which must approve the Planning Board's vote, sold an additional 130 acres to the state this summer for $20 million. The land sales are separate from parkland that will be transferred for the project next year, planning officials said.

Ehrlich and highway supporters say the road will better connect the I-270 and I-95 corridors, including Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and the Port of Baltimore. Opponents say the road will provide little traffic relief while causing irreparable environmental damage, disrupting neighborhoods and siphoning money away from mass transit improvements.


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