Normally Obscure Panel Pushed Into the Limelight

Property Review Board member Robert Hanson looks at lines showing what the state will slice from the backyard of Joseph and Donna Simon's property. (Photos By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2007

Attorney Michele Rosenfeld had just finished arguing the value of a back yard that lies in the path of the future intercounty connector when the 83-year-old man asked her to speak up.

"Your voice is beautiful, but it's too low," Robert Hanson told her during the recent hearing at the Rockville courthouse. "We all have hearing aids, and they're turned up to the max, but I've heard about half of what you've said."

Hanson, a North Potomac cattle farmer, sits on the Montgomery County Board of Property Review, a little-known panel that decides whether the state has offered "just compensation" for private land seized to build the six-lane toll road between Gaithersburg and Laurel.

Usually, the three board members, each in their 80s, hear one or two cases a year. But in the past six months, as the state has begun buying hundreds of properties in the 18.8-mile highway's planned path, they've sometimes heard two a week.

The retired farmer, lawyer and engineer -- three occupations required by the 1956 state law governing such boards -- are deciding cases that, together, involve millions of dollars.

Their hearings, conducted like informal trials, can spark such emotion that some property owners leave fuming or choking back tears.

The age of the board's members doesn't go unnoticed, particularly among property owners already angry about the prospect of living near a highway. The eldest, Herbert Hall, 89, often declines to view the properties in question. Hall, a retired engineer who lives in Silver Spring, said he has difficulty walking and fears falling on uneven ground.

Joseph Simon, 67, a retired manager who contested the state's offer for part of his yard in Derwood, said the board members were "true gentlemen." However, he said that "an hour into the meeting, I realized they didn't hear what was going on. They didn't ask questions, or the ones they did didn't seem right."

The panel awarded Simon and his wife, Donna, $46,000 more than the state's offer of $123,650. Even so, Simon said, the amount is short of the $220,640 their appraiser found would compensate for their home's lower resale value with a highway sound wall 50 feet from their back door.

Simon's neighbor, Bud Campbell, 61, who owns the Derwood house for which Rosenfeld argued, said he immediately grew concerned during his board hearing.

"Some [members] were nodding off," said Campbell, who owns a heating and air conditioning company. "I don't hold age against anyone, but if they can't hear, how can you make a judgment?"

Using its powers of eminent domain, the state plans to take 1,400 acres from almost 500 property owners, most in central Montgomery and some in northwestern Prince George's County. The $391 million budgeted for buying the connector's right-of-way amounts to one of the Maryland State Highway Administration's largest land purchases ever.

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