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  State Paying To Save Path For Connector

By Manuel Perez-Rivas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19 1997; Page B01

With the fate of the long-debated intercounty connector still in doubt, Maryland highway officials have agreed to pay more than $1.1 million for nine months to keep a developer from building on Montgomery County land that lies in one of the paths being considered for the controversial road.

State officials said yesterday that the deal struck with Winchester Homes Inc. came after consultations with federal agencies, which urged the state to keep development away from the various alignments proposed for the highway. It also was prompted by the fact that the developer had started grading work to build 130 homes on the 142-acre parcel on the south side of Maryland Route 198 in the Cloverly area west of Burtonsville.

"If we hadn't taken action, there would be houses going up," said Neil J. Pedersen, planning director for the State Highway Administration.

For years, county, state and federal officials have been studying a series of possible routes for a $1.1 billion highway to connect Interstate 270 near Rockville with Interstate 95 in Prince George's County.

Officials appeared to be finally nearing a decision until last week when state officials rejected a master plan alignment for the highway that had been included in the county's planning documents for more than 30 years. That left two alternative routes on the table, along with two other possibilities for so-called hybrid routes that combine portions of different alignments.

The subdivision that the state is paying $125,000 a month to halt, Banbury Ridings, would lie in the path of the Midcounty Highway-Maryland Route 198 alignment. It also would figure in one of the hybrid alignments recently proposed by the county Planning Board.

Critics of the agreement, however, said there is no guarantee that either of the alignments will be approved, particularly before the deal expires in April. They said the deal is reminiscent of the state and county spending $35 million to buy land for the master plan route, which now has been rejected.

"It seems to me that it's a bit shortsighted on their part. They're trying to keep every door open, but there's a point where it reaches ridiculousness," said County Council member Gail Ewing (D-At Large), adding that "$1.1 million to stop construction for nine months is outlandish."

"Now the question is going to be what happens when the time is up," said Norman Taylor, vice president of the Peach Orchard Heights Civic Association, a homeowners group in Cloverly. "Is the State Highway Administration going to cough up more money?"

The agreement grants the state possession of the property for nine months. All official permits are grandfathered in to ensure that they will not expire if the land eventually is developed. The price paid by the state to, in effect, lease the land for the nine-month period will not affect the price that would be paid in any potential condemnation proceeding. And, finally, if condemnation proceedings do take place, the state would be bound to purchase the entire 142-acre parcel, not just the portion in the path of the highway.

Taylor and others questioned why the Planning Board gave the necessary approvals to allow development of the property, knowing that the land is in the path of one of the several proposed routes for the highway.

But county and state officials said the Planning Board had no authority to deny planning approvals because the Midcounty Highway-Maryland Route 198 alignment appears on no county master plans. The only intercounty connector route that did appear in the master plan is the master plan alignment, of which a major segment has been killed.

With the necessary approvals in place, Winchester Homes bought the land from the previous owners earlier this year for about $6 million and notified the state that it planned to go ahead with construction. Heavy machinery already had started moving earth when negotiations with state officials resulted in the agreement that went into effect in July.

State officials said the agreement to halt development is the only one of its kind along the many miles affected by the various intercounty connector alternatives. And they defended the move as an investment that could save taxpayers money in the end.

"Undeveloped property is going to be much cheaper than developed property," said Valerie Burnette Edgar, a spokeswoman for the State Highway Administration.

Metro resource director Margot Williams contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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