Ajay Bhatt outside his new fence. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Some Maryland residents along the planned route for the light-rail Purple Line are being told that they have until April 30 to tear down fences, sheds and anything else built on publicly owned land preserved for the project.

About 80 property owners in the Washington suburbs of Bethesda and Chevy Chase have begun receiving letters from the Montgomery County Department of Transportation ordering them to remove structures that “encroach” on a county-owned trail behind their homes.

The county plans to rebuild the three-mile jogging and cycling trail between downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring alongside train tracks as part of the state’s 16-mile light-rail project.

The letters, which came as a surprise to some residents, signal that the Maryland Transit Administration is forging ahead on the rail project. The state is doing so even as it has yet to award a 35-year contract for its construction, financing and operation or secure $900 million in federal construction aid.

“With support on the federal, state and local levels, this is going to be built,” said Patrick Lacefield, spokesman for Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). “There are various stages we have to work through, and things need to be done sooner or later in dealing with right of way for the project. This is a preliminary step.”

Mapping the Purple Line

The letter states that the county will reimburse property owners up to $3,000 each to remove or relocate the structures, which also include parking pads, retaining walls and steps. Lacefield said the county has budgeted $250,000 for the reimbursements. He said nine of the 80 owners will be told that the state plans to buy some of their private property to build the line. The trail alignment would be the western section of the Purple Line, which would run between Bethesda in Montgomery and New Carrollton in Prince George’s County.

Robert Haddad, who lives along the trail in Bethesda, said that he received a letter Monday saying the storage and firewood sheds behind his home are on public property. Haddad said he has had both since shortly after he bought his home in 1997.

“I’ve been here 20 years,” Haddad said. “I don’t think I or any of my neighbors can distinguish between our yards and where the right of way begins.”

Haddad said he was surprised to learn that the county survey determined the rail right of way extends about 15 feet into what he has long considered to be his back yard, shrinking it by about a quarter. He said he didn’t realize his sheds were on public land or that the county would order them be removed before the Purple Line’s construction, estimated to cost $2.15 billion, was fully funded.

“The issue isn’t completely settled, so I’m quite surprised the county is acting as if construction crews will be here to start digging,” Haddad said.

State transit officials have said they plan to award a Purple Line contract this spring and, if federal funding is secured, begin construction in mid-2016. Trains would begin operating in 2021.

Robert Haddad was told the storage and firewood sheds behind his home are on public property. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

An MTA spokesman said no one was available to comment Tuesday and did not respond to questions Wednesday.

Another Bethesda resident said she was shocked to read that she has four months to remove a shed and part of her fence. She said she always assumed that an old metal stick in the ground between her shed and the trail marked her back property line. She said state Purple Line maps that she saw at an open house two years ago did not show the line running so close to her home.

“I have a sense of shock, like ‘What do you mean this isn’t my property?’ ” said the resident, who asked not to be named because she’s considering legal action against the county. “It feels like I’m this individual against this massive government project.”

The letters, which the county began mailing Dec. 31, are arriving amid two legal battles — one that could affect the rail line’s alignment along the trail and another that could determine whether the land that residents have built on legally became theirs at some point via “adverse possession.”

A federal lawsuit filed by the citizens group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail alleges that the trail alignment violates federal environmental laws.

Meanwhile, Maryland’s highest court is considering the case of the group’s president. Ajay Bhatt successfully argued to a lower court judge that a fence behind his home since at least 1960 allowed him to take adverse possession of that 14-foot strip of trail land from the freight railroad company that owned it at the time. The county bought the land for $10 million in 1988 to preserve for a transitway. Montgomery County, which had fined Bhatt $500 for allegedly building a new fence on county right of way, appealed the lower-court decision. The Maryland Court of Appeals is expected to issue a decision this spring.

Bhatt said the group has heard from about 10 residents who have received letters. Many, he said, have asked how the county can force them to tear down or move structures before the appellate court decides his fence case.

“Certainly, it’s premature,” Bhatt said.

Bhatt said some property owners have speculated to him that the county wants to preempt the court’s decision. A ruling in Bhatt’s favor could lead other residents to argue that they, too, took legal possession of the trail land by openly fencing it in or building on it when the freight railroad owned it. That would add to the state’s or county’s property acquisition costs for the rail project.

Asked what would happen if property owners ignored the letters, Lacefield said, “The county is looking for voluntary compliance.” If that is not “forthcoming,” he said, the county will consider legal options.

The MTA has bought other land for the Purple Line, including a strip of homes in Riverdale Park in Prince George’s, a warehouse in Silver Spring and parts of front yards in Lyttonsville.