When Quality of Life Hits the Road
Friday, May 4, 2007
Roland A. Mariano has resigned himself to the six-lane highway about to cut through the thick woods behind his Rockville home. He just wants to be paid fairly, he said, for the half-acre the intercounty connector will take from his back yard and the quiet, peaceful life he believes will go with it.
The Maryland State Highway Administration has offered to pay Mariano fair market value for the part of his yard being condemned. But the state has offered nothing, he said, to offset the money he expects to lose when he tries to sell his house with a smaller yard amid the sights, sounds and smells of a major highway.
"I'd like to stay, regardless of the road," said Mariano, an accountant. "I just want the state to give us fair compensation."
The question of what, if anything, the state should compensate those living near the future intercounty connector has sparked the latest battle over the controversial highway. It is playing out in Montgomery County Circuit Court, in which the state so far has filed condemnation papers against more than 100 property owners who have refused its purchase offers. State officials are just starting negotiations in Prince George's County at the road's eastern end.
Many of the Montgomery offers pending in court, which a Property Review Board or jury will evaluate, include nothing for damages, according to interviews with property owners. Such payments are required under Maryland's eminent domain law when an owner's remaining property suffers financial losses after the government has seized part for a public project.
Some court cases are raising complex legal questions, such as: Should the state have to compensate homeowners left breathing vehicle exhaust created by additional traffic? What, if anything, does the government owe for replacing a beautiful, tree-filled view with an ugly sound wall or drowning out the sounds of birds with the rumbling of semi-trucks? And how much will such factors affect home values in the shadow of a six-lane highway?
The answers could affect hundreds of property owners along the toll highway's 18-mile route, including areas of Derwood, Rockville, the Norbeck corridor, Silver Spring and Laurel. The state needs to buy about 1,400 acres, including 52 homes and 11 businesses, from almost 500 owners from Rockville to Laurel. With $391 million budgeted for buying right of way, it will end up being one of the highway administration's largest land purchases.
How much money could be at stake is difficult to determine. With hundreds of property owners in the highway's path and Montgomery County homes selling for an average of $520,000, paying damages could quickly add up into the millions. State highway officials said they do not have a specific amount set aside for such payments, saying only that they are one of many "contingency costs" included in their right-of-way budget.
State highway officials said they rely on their independent appraisers' judgment to determine whether a property owner will suffer losses. Payments are based only on what financial impact, if any, the highway would have on the remaining property's value. There is no compensation simply for having to live near the highway, state officials said, and only property owners losing part of their land are eligible to receive damages.
Joseph M. Miklochik, director of the highway administration's Office of Real Estate, said property owners have plenty of chances to challenge the state's offer, in and out of court. About 95 percent of such cases are resolved before reaching a jury, he said.
"If they get an appraisal indicating that there should be more for damages or just compensation, they can challenge us," Miklochik said. "If they make a counter-offer, we'll consider it. Obviously we won't make everyone happy, but we try our best to make this process as painless as possible and work with property owners."
The state may seize the land while the court cases are pending over the purchase price. State officials, who say the highway is needed to speed travel between the Interstate 270 and Interstate 95 corridors, plan to begin major construction on the $2.4 billion project in the fall. Meanwhile, opponents say they hope two federal lawsuits that allege environmental problems will stop it.
Discussions surrounding the highway plans have grown far more tense recently. Several property owners said they are weighing the costs of hiring lawyers to fight the state's offers. State highway officials won't answer reporters' questions without first running them past the agency's lawyers, citing the two federal lawsuits and pending litigation with property owners.
M. Ronald Lipman, whose Columbia firm does commercial appraisals, said there is no presumption that building a highway near homes will lower their property values. Appraisers find damages, he said, when they can prove that homes along similar roads sold for less than those farther away. Such research could reveal a market of homebuyers who don't mind living near a highway, he said.
Miklochik said highway officials have not seen significant drops in real estate prices near the intercounty connector route since then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) revived the project four years ago.
Joseph Simon said he and his wife, Donna, aren't convinced. Plans call for a large sound wall to run through their Derwood back yard where they now have flower beds, bird feeders and trees as far as they can see. While the state offered nothing for damages, Simon said his own appraiser found that the highway will lower their resale value by as much as 35 percent.
Alan Latt, one of Mariano's neighbors, said his appraiser determined that his home value will drop 20 to 35 percent after the highway cuts through his peaceful, tree-filled back yard. He said the state appraisal included no such damages. He compared his predicament to "Walton's Mountain about to become a thoroughfare."
Latt said he believes state officials won't discuss damages because paying them to so many property owners could blow their budget. Miklochik said the highway's budget took such costs into account.