Bid to Get Land for Connector Escalates

After construction of the intercounty connector, Paul Sevier will still be able to spend time in his Rockville back yard but will lose his tree-filled backdrop.
After construction of the intercounty connector, Paul Sevier will still be able to spend time in his Rockville back yard but will lose his tree-filled backdrop. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2007

More than a third of the Montgomery County property owners who must sell land for the first leg of the intercounty connector have declined the state's initial offers and are facing court proceedings to condemn their homes, yards or other parcels.

The Maryland State Highway Administration has used eminent domain laws to take legal possession of at least 66 of 178 properties between Interstate 370 and Georgia Avenue, said Joseph M. Miklochik, director of the highway administration's Office of Real Estate. A judge or review board will decide whether the state's "fair market value" offers are, in fact, fair.

The first stretch will make up about a third of the planned 18-mile highway, which will stretch from Gaithersburg in Montgomery to Laurel in Prince George's County. Construction could begin as early as this summer, highway officials said.

Some landowners said the court action caught them by surprise. They wondered why the state filed lawsuits or "quick take" petitions against them while they thought they were negotiating a deal.

Others said they have felt rushed to sell before the state responded to some of their inquiries, such as why neighbors received different offers for similar land. Some said the state took legal possession of their property in court while they were trying to discover the exact land they stood to lose.

"Before we even knew it, there was a court filing against us," said Alexandra Witze, whose Derwood homeowners association must sell about 3,300 square feet of its vacant common land for the highway. "We haven't had time to get our questions answered from the state about the impact this is going to have on our community or have any dialogue."

Fred Begosh said the state moved to condemn part of his back yard before he could learn why its $70,000 appraisal didn't include money to replace mature trees. Landscapers have estimated that doing so will cost more than $100,000, he said.

"They said they'd negotiate, but I can't get ahold of anyone," said Begosh, who lives in Derwood.

State highway officials said they never intended to rush anyone. Filing the court cases now will help keep the project on schedule, they said. That is because the state must own or legally possess all property in the highway's 7.2-mile western section before late March, when it plans to award a major contract to design and build that piece. Filing the condemnation papers in court gives the state legal possession while the sales prices are being determined. The state must buy about 1,400 acres, including 52 homes and 11 businesses, from almost 500 property owners for the entire highway.

The intercounty connector, estimated to cost $2.4 billion, has been hotly debated for decades. State officials say the highway, which was proposed more than 50 years ago, is badly needed to improve east-west travel through the Maryland suburbs, particularly between the Interstate 270 and Interstate 95 corridors. Opponents, some of whom have filed two federal lawsuits trying to stop it, say it will cost too much, cause too much environmental damage and create unhealthy air and noise pollution for nearby residents.

Miklochik said the state buys land for major road projects based on independent appraisals of fair market value and negotiations with property owners. To keep purchases moving, particularly in cases where negotiations have stalled, the state can ask a Circuit Court judge or the court's three-member Board of Property Review to determine a fair price while it takes legal possession of the property.

In the meantime, the state deposits with the court the amount it has deemed to be fair. Property owners can withdraw that money while the case is pending.

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