Casey Foundation Fights Md. Over Land Seized for Highway
Friday, November 23, 2007
Maryland highway officials and the philanthropic Eugene B. Casey Foundation are battling in court over the state's decision to seize 405 acres of the foundation's land for the intercounty connector, even though the land is seven miles from the highway's planned route.
The state has taken the wooded, rolling hills in Boyds, and has offered to pay the foundation $3.44 million, to replace some of the parkland and mature forests that will be bulldozed to build the six-lane toll highway between Gaithersburg and Laurel. The Montgomery County parcel is part of the Maryland State Highway Administration's "environmental mitigation" plan, which received federal approval.
Environmentalists say the Casey land is too far away to help the wildlife in the more than 900 acres of forests, wetlands and parkland that the 18.8-mile highway will destroy. The bigger issue: The foundation, its attorney said, doesn't want to sell and thinks the state has no right to the property.
Bethesda lawyer Robert Park said the foundation wants to keep the property along Schaeffer Road, west of the South Germantown Recreational Park, as one of its many real estate investments. The state's powers of eminent domain, which allow it to seize private land for public use, he said, don't extend to taking property to mitigate a highway's environmental harm.
"They don't want to sell the property," Park said of Betty B. Casey and other trustees. "The state doesn't have the right to take this property."
The Casey Foundation is one of the Washington area's largest philanthropic organizations, with a net worth of $166 million, according to its 2005 federal tax filing. Eugene B. Casey, who died in 1986, was a developer and one of upper Montgomery's largest land owners. Betty B. Casey, 80, his widow, lives in Potomac, according to voter records.
The state took ownership of the foundation's property in May, after the trustees declined to negotiate a fair market price, said Melinda Peters, the intercounty connector's project director. Upon seizing the land, the state deposited its purchase offer of $3.44 million with the Montgomery Circuit Court and filed a condemnation case against Betty Casey and other trustees. A judge is expected to rule in spring on whether the state has the right to seize the land.
County Council President Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), who opposes the connector, said the Casey property didn't need to be protected. Because of its rural zoning, she said, it was never at risk of being densely developed.
"What sticks in my craw is it's nowhere near the neighborhoods or forests being impacted by the intercounty connector," Praisner said. "To pick a parcel just because it's a big forested area so far away may meet the letter of the requirement, but it sure as heck doesn't meet the spirit of it."
Peters said the state condemned the Casey property at the suggestion of 13 agencies, including the National Park Service, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. It's part of the state's plan to provide 777 acres of parkland to replace the 88 acres that the connector will destroy.
In court filings, the Maryland attorney general's office says the Casey property qualifies as necessary for "public use" because buying forested parkland is required under that federally approved plan.
Dominic Quattrocchi, a senior planner for the Montgomery Department of Parks, said planners couldn't find such a large piece of privately owned forest closer to the connector route. Because it's surrounded by parkland, he said, the Casey parcel will contribute to an even larger swath of mature, protected forest that some birds, such as wild turkeys and warblers, need to breed and raise their young.