A Falls Church, Va., man is suing Montgomery County after being told the sidewalk he was “expressing his religious views” on in downtown Silver Spring was private property, his attorney said.
Michael Corral and his friend, Debra Mehaffey, walked various sidewalks in downtown Silver Spring on March 23, 2012, reading the Bible and distributing religious tracts, according to Corral’s attorney, Center for Religious Expression Chief Counsel Nathan W. Kellum.
Corral was standing on the corner of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street in front of the Regal Majestic movie theater “sharing his message about his Christian faith,” when he was approached by a security guard for Peterson Cos., according to Kellum.
The security guard told Corral he was standing on private property of the movie theater, according to court documents. Corral then walked with the security guard to two Montgomery County Police officers who said the sidewalk in front of the movie theater was private property owned by PFA Silver Spring LC, according to the document.
PFA Silver Spring LC, the document says, is a group of three partners — Peterson Companies, Foulger-Pratt Companies and Argo Investment Company — tasked with redeveloping the 22.5-acre area generally bounded by Georgia Avenue, Colesville Road, Wayne Avenue and Cedar Street.
When Corral “reiterated his belief that he had a right” to be on the sidewalk because he thought the spot was considered public property, officers issued a Trespass Notification Form. Court documents say the form alleged Corral was in violation of the law because he “[r]efused to leave when told to do so by security.”
The form also cites that Corral cannot return to the 900 block of Ellsworth Drive, the 800 block of Ellsworth Park, the 8500 block of Fenton Street and the 8600 block of Fenton Street for one year. Corral is still banned from these areas of downtown Silver Spring, Kellum said.
After requesting to be allowed back in those areas of Silver Spring on April 23, Corral received a letter on May 18 from the county attorney’s office denying Corral was banned from expressing his beliefs on a public sidewalk, stating that the property is privately owned, according to court documents.
County Attorney Marc Hansen said his office had not yet received the complaint and said it was too early to comment on the case.
This is not the first time someone was told the sidewalk was private property. In June 2007, photographer Chip Py was told he was not allowed to take pictures on Ellsworth Drive because it was private property. The county attorney eventually determined Ellsworth Drive “constitutes a public forum,” according to a July 30, 2007, finding.
When the county entered into an agreement with PFA Silver Spring LC in April 1998 for the Silver Spring Retail Redevelopment Urban Renewal Project, the county agreed to lease Ellsworth Drive between Fenton Place and Georgia Avenue to PFA, according to the document. The county, the document said, “retained an easement over specific portions of the leased properties for vehicular and pedestrian use.”
Then, in 2002, the county entered into a lease with PFA and recorded a Declaration of Easements, which stated the county reserved Public Use Easements over several leased parcels in downtown Silver Spring, including Ellsworth Drive. The easements defined the areas as “public use space” by the county zoning ordinance which is “required by the sector plan and other space devoted to such uses as space for public enjoyment.”
Kellum said that while no hearing had been set as of Tuesday afternoon, he hopes the court will rule on the civil lawsuit to allow Corral back into the space as soon as possible.