Maryland's State Highway Administration has spent several million dollars to buy about 200 acres along the route that a bypass of U.S. Route 301 would follow if the road is built west of Waldorf, and the agency is seeking more land.
Highway administration officials say the purchases are meant only to preserve a corridor for possible road construction and do not indicate that they expect to build a Waldorf bypass or that they prefer a western route for such a road.
Those fighting the proposed road say the purchases demonstrate that state officials intend to build a western bypass, as recommended in 1996 by a state-sponsored task force.
"It says to me they've made up their mind," said Amy Freise, president of Citizens Against the Waldorf Bypass.
Highway officials said the purchases are meant to forestall large housing projects that could block a bypass if a decision is made to build the project. They said a decision on the road will emerge from a round of workshops and committee meetings now underway.
"It doesn't mean we're leaning one way or the other," said Michael Perrotta, project engineer for Route 301.
The road is Charles County's major commercial street, attracting thousands of shopping trips every day, as well as a through route for commuters and long-distance motorists. Its traffic is projected to increase by 40 percent or more in the next 20 years, and planners say congestion can only worsen without substantial road improvements.
Opponents say a bypass would encourage sprawl development while failing to ease congestion that is fed by heavy shopping traffic. They call for upgrading Route 301 within its current alignment.
Bypass proponents say such an upgrade would create a high-speed barrier down the middle of Waldorf. Without a bypass, they say, Waldorf will suffer business-killing congestion and residents will face longer commutes.
The 1996 task force identified a bypass corridor that connected southern Prince George's County to the northern edge of La Plata, the Charles County seat. The route crosses Middletown Road several hundred yards north of Westlake High School.
In 1995 the state spent about $1 million to purchase a 60-acre tract between Middletown Road and Maryland Route 228, highway officials said.
In addition, the State Highway Administration has asked the Charles County Circuit Court to compel landowners to sell two other tracts.
In the first case, which has been settled, the highway administration filed suit July 1 asking for the forced sale of 141 acres on the west side of Middletown Road that were to become part of the Berry Valley subdivision.
The highway administration suggested a price of $7.4 million--an amount that attorneys for the landowner called inadequate.
The final selling price has not appeared in court documents, but landowner Raye Vest on Wednesday said the deal had been completed. He declined to provide details.
In the other court case, which remains pending, the highway administration filed suit in 1993 seeking to purchase 9.2 acres of land in what has become the Charles Crossing subdivision. In a subsequent letter to county planners, the highway administration said it is trying to preserve a 300-foot right of way through the development.
Highway planners also want to buy part of the Forest Grove Cemetery on La Plata's northern edge to preserve the option of joining a bypass to Route 301 there, Perrotta said.
Such preventive land purchases are to be expected, said Charles County Board of Commissioners President Murray D. Levy (D-At Large).
"The state has made it clear and we have made it clear that we're preserving all options," Levy said. "And that means certain rights of way are going to be preserved. It doesn't mean they are going to be used."
He said officials could ultimately decide to sell land that had been bought for corridor preservation.
After Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) on Wednesday killed the proposed Intercounty Connector in Montgomery County, state officials said they would sell about $25 million worth of land along the right of way.
A Charles County committee studying traffic congestion recently identified possible bypass routes to Waldorf's east. Highway officials will buy land there, too, if housing developments spring up, said Dennis M. Atkins, the highway administration's Route 301 project manager.
"We don't want to be at the point where we have no options on either side," Atkins said.