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Montgomery Debates: Trolley or Bike Trail?

By Barbara J. Saffir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 1997; Page M03

Montgomery County has won a small victory in a protracted squabble over the ownership of a strip of land that residents want to see turned into a trolley route or bike path linking Bethesda to Silver Spring.

A federal judge ruled in March that the county owns the disputed terrain, which snakes through expensive Chevy Chase real estate between the two downtowns.

The ruling would ensure that the county wouldn't have to pay twice for the same property. Both parties are considering appeals before a May 12 deadline.

In 1988, under the Rails to Trails Act, Montgomery County bought a 6.4-mile-long segment of rail line for about $10 million from CSX Corp.

The Chevy Chase Land Co., which originally sold part of the land to CSX's predecessor, sued the county and the federal government, claiming ownership had reverted to it once the land was no longer being used as a railway.

Columbia Country Club, whose fairways are traversed by the right of way, joined the suit, saying that it owned the land on the golf course.

"It's pretty clear that they have the authority to take the land," said Bill Utermohlen, a lawyer for Chevy Chase Land Co. "But normally the rule is you have to pay for it."

The country club's lawyer, R. Dennis Osterman, said his client is pleased that the decision effectively affirms the golfers' right to cross the right of way, but the county's ultimate plan for use of the land may determine the course of future litigation.

For more than 60 years, Columbia's members coexisted with freight trains rumbling across the course several times a week.

More recently, they befriended the people who pedal and jog along the 16-foot-wide gravel path at the center of the 100-foot-wide right of way.

But a proposed mass transit route that would carry trains throughout the day and eat up the closely cropped greens extending onto the county's domain, could threaten the golf course's viability, Osterman said.

"Putting a trolley through the club is a whole different dynamic than a hiker-biker trail," he said. "A trolley that used the entire 100-foot strip would probably require redesign of the golf course -- if it could be used at all."

Another "squatters rights" lawsuit is still pending.

A group of homeowners whose properties abut the trail has sued the county, contending that they own pieces of the right of way because they have been allowed to use them for decades.

Associate County Attorney Diane Schwartz-Jones and one of the landowners' lawyers, Tracy Mulligan, said they hope to resolve the matter, but the case remains mostly inactive. Many residents appear resolved or even happy to have a narrow bike path in their back yards, but they balk at the prospect of a light rail line.

The trolley dilemma has been brewing for years.

Shortly after Montgomery County bought the land, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer offered $70 million to build a light-rail link on it. The offer was well received during the 1980s, when development was burgeoning and the county treasury was full. In 1989, the county's transportation director recommended building a combination rail- and trail-way. But well before the budget bubble burst in the recession of the early 1990s, pro-mass transit forces began facing off against those who either wanted the land left alone or coupled to the popular Capital Crescent Trail, which connects Georgetown to downtown Bethesda.

Although several associations have been involved, two groups have led the hyperbole-marked fight: the Action Committee for Transit, whose spokesman Ben Ross said, "If this project isn't built, the whole county is going to drown in traffic," and the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Coalition Inc., whose co-chairman Ira Shesser said that a trolley "would create an environmental disaster."

Meanwhile, the availability of funding for the project, whose estimates have run as high as $258 million, has lapsed and the motivation of high-level leaders has run dry.

The last county executive to fully support the project was Sidney Kramer in 1990.

"We have other priorities right now," said Graham Norton, Montgomery's director of public works and transportation.

The Maryland Department of Transportation held public hearings last year after it concluded extensive engineering and environmental studies culminating in three options: a light rail system, a busway or low-cost improvements to the existing transit system. But no money exists to complete the final environmental impact study, which is required before local officials can act on one of the alternatives.

But Congress may come to the rescue whether county officials want it or not.

Members of the Maryland congressional delegation, including Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella (Md.), recently requested funding for the final evaluation in a letter to the House Transportation Committee chairman. "I won't be in the decision-making mode," Morella said, explaining that the transit choices belong to the county and the state. "But it's my responsibility that I put in a pitch to complete the study."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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