When Montgomery County park planners decided nearly two decades ago to buy a five-acre plot of land in Bethesda, they never thought their efforts to provide a leafy refuge would be snarled by constitutional questions over the value of American dollars.
But the owner of a tiny slice of the land is insisting he be paid for his property in gold or silver coin.
To press his claim, Richard L. Solyom, a 72-year-old retired civil engineer of Fort Lee, N.J., has engaged the Maryland Parks and Planning Commission in a court battle that promises to stretch to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The commission offered Solyom $1,462 for his sliver of land, but he refused to accept dollars, saying "The U.S. Constitution says that 'No state shall . . . make anything but gold and silver coin tender in payment of debts.' "
But Laurie Borman, an attorney for the parks commission, said that Solyom is demanding more than he is entitled to. "If we take $1,462 and go into a currency exchange and buy Mr. Solyom that much gold, that's not what he wants," Borman said. "He wants us to give him 1,462 gold or silver dollars which are worth many times more than the value of his property."
The proposed park is one of the longest-running projects in the county. Government planners have invested 19 years of work in trying to acquire the park from Solyom and his relatives.
After negotiating for 15 years, the Maryland Park and Planning Commission finally bought the five acres in 1977 at a cost of $600,010 from eight heirs of Louis Charles Solyom, who bought the land in 1875 when Bethesda was mostly hay and corn fields.
The commission then learned that to complete the park site it needed to buy an adjacent kite-shaped plot measuring 1,253 square feet--just big enough to park two cars--and that Richard Solyom owned one-ninth of it. Solyom's eight relatives immediately sold their interests in the property, but Solyom decided to take advantage of the occasion to bring the gold standard question into court.
The site, to be known as the Willard Avenue Local Park, is situated by a dense mix of high-rise apartments and suburban homes at Willard Avenue and River Road, three blocks from the District line. The five-acre tract is covered with tall trees and has a winding stream.
So far, Solyom, who grew up in Bethesda, has lost every round of the courtroom fight.
After trying to persuade Solyom to sell, the parks and planning commission filed a petition of condemnation in Montgomery County Circuit Court in October 1980. Two months later, Solyom filed a counterclaim, demanding to be paid in gold.
Last July, Judge Philip Fairbanks dismissed Solyom's claim, saying it was groundless. Last December, the judge set $1,462 as the fair market payment for the land, to be paid with U.S. currency.
Solyom appealed to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. "If we do not win in the Maryland courts of appeal, my client has given us instructions to take this case to the Supreme Court," said Tracy E. Mulligan, one of Solyom's two attorneys.
Meanwhile, the commission plans to pay $1,462 into the court's registry in Solyom's name. Full title will then be granted to the commission, which hopes to ready the park this spring.
Already, Solyom said he has spent $15,000 in legal fees. Maryland taxpapers have paid another $5,000 in court costs and lawyers' time.
Solyom said he may get help in paying for his appeals.
"When I first started this project, I got tired of writing on my own stationery, so I had letterhead printed for an organization I came up with called, 'The Sound Dollar Committee,' " Solyom said. "I never incorporated or anything, but already I've received more than 1,200 letters from people who have seen the letterhead, have heard about my case, and are in support of the idea of specie-backed currency."
Solyom also has mailed hundreds of press releases detailing his plight to newspapers around the world, bringing responses from South Africa, Switzerland, Germany, Argentina, Hong Kong, Australia, Mexico, Guatemala and Canada.
Additionally, U.S. Rep. Ronald E. Paul (R-Tex.), who favors the gold standard, is considering filing a brief in support of Solyom's appeal, according to his legislative aide, John W. Robbins.
"We want to make an impression on lower courts who might tend to dismiss Mr. Solyom as a nut," Robbins said. "There are a number of congressmen and senators who are concerned about this case and consider the gold standard a legitimate issue."