Friday, Jan. 11, 2008

Stranded residents struggle to resolve a land dispute

Sandy Spring couple sues developer, county planners over a ‘missing’ road to their property

E-mail this article \ Print this article

Dan Gross⁄The Gazette
William Rounds stands behind a small chain strung across the road that was used to access his property between Brooke and Chandlee Mill roads. Behind Rounds are members of the Awkard family, whose property also lies along the disputed road, and their friend Steve Kanstoroom. A records dispute over whether they have an easement that grants them a right of way has left them landlocked.
The chain closing the entrance to Farm Road in Sandy Spring has become the battle line that has set residents of a community founded by freed slaves against the Montgomery County Planning Board and a developer of million-dollar homes.

The gravel road, which residents say is more than 100 years old, once connected their properties, but it doesn’t appear on plans for the Dellabrooke subdivision that the planning agency approved in 1998.

A neighbor put up the chain in spring 2006, limiting residents’ access to their land. More than just an inconvenience, the removal of ‘‘Farm Road” from county maps reduces their property values, residents say.

Gregg and Michelle Bacon want the right to use the road as it existed before land in its path was appropriated for the Dellabrooke subdivision.

So do more than a dozen other landowners, including Michele Awkard. She and her fiancé, Sheldon Carter Sr., want to build a house for their five children, but the land-use agency halted the plan because of the lack of road access.

However, the planning agency had already issued addresses to surrounding neighbors based, presumably, on their access to Farm Road.

Those addresses appear with X’s through them on copies of tax maps in what planning officials called a ‘‘working,” but not official, document.

An address is necessary for a building permit, and planners require a road for ambulance and fire truck access before it will issue an address, planning department spokeswoman Valerie Berton said.

The agency issues letters assigning addresses and property owners should keep those letters as a record of their address, said planning information and permit review supervisor Lonnie Rorie.

But Rorie said the department is not required to keep records of addresses and periodically purges its records for space.

The road, which passes near the Sandy Spring Slave Museum, has a long history, the landowners say. Their ancestors used it. William Rounds said he laid 25 loads of gravel and spent hours grading it for himself and for a woman who lived up Farm Road until she died years ago.

‘‘The funeral home and ambulance used the road to bury her and service her when she was sick,” said Rounds, who is not part of the Bacons’ lawsuit. ‘‘There are records. I don’t understand how they can say it’s not there.”

Rounds said he was refused an address for property he owns where two dwellings once stood.

Confounded by planners’ and Planning Board lawyers’ refusal to intervene, the Bacons sued planning officials and others in Montgomery County Circuit Court in September. They are seeking millions of dollars and alleging fraud, deceit, conspiracy, race-based discrimination and violation of their right to due process.

According to documents filed with the Bacons’ lawsuit, county development review chief Rose G. Krasnow said the planning agency does not recognize private easements and is not required to act when it learns of false and misleading plans.

Krasnow declined to discuss the case because she is one of the defendants.

Berton said Krasnow’s statement was ‘‘taken out of context.”

Subdivision regulations, Berton said, do not require the planning department to show private easements on subdivision plans. Enforcing private easements is the job of the courts, she said.

The planning department now requires developers to meet with neighbors as part of the application process, but the new requirements do not include making developers notify the community of any private easements that may be involved, Berton said.

According to the Bacons’ suit, references to Farm Road appear in deeds dating back more than 100 years.

Yet the road was not shown in a series of submissions to the Planning Board made for developer Warren Lee Brown of Annapolis by his lawyer, Richard S. Alper of Washington, and Douglass H. Riggs III, a surveyor for Macris, Hendricks and Glascock, a civil engineering and land planning firm in Montgomery Village. Alper and Macris are also named in the Bacons’ suit.

‘‘There is absolutely no merit whatsoever to the lawsuit,” said John Rolfe, a lawyer for Macris. The firm is asking the court to strike the complaint.

Developer Warren Brown, whose grandfather owned the land where Dellabrooke now stands, said Farm Road did not appear on a survey he had done in 1980.

Brown said he never saw what looked like a road near his property. ‘‘There may well be some history of the Bacons connecting south to Brooke Road,” he said.

The Bacons’ complaint about Macris’ work in Sandy Spring says the firm and its surveyor ‘‘falsely depicted” a 200-acre tract in their community by omitting ‘‘Farm Road.” Leaving out the road allowed a larger forest conservation easement for the Dellabrooke development, a large subdivision of homes each costing nearly $1 million.

Built about six years ago, Dellabrooke blocked the older community’s access to Farm Road from Goldmine Road, but the Bacons, Rounds and others said they used an entrance on Brooke Road until 18 months ago when a neighbor chained the entrance.

In April 2007, land surveyor Jefferson Lawrence verified deed references to Farm Road, finding discrepancies between Macris’ submissions to the planning agency and state and local records.

Lawrence noted that Farm Road, or portions of it, also appears on planning agency maps and state tax maps.

Lawrence confirmed Farm Road’s route, and ‘‘his position is supported by deeds, plats, maps and sworn statements,” according to documents filed with the Bacons’ lawsuit.

A Maryland Department of Planning analyst who reviewed that research compared Lawrence’s findings to state records and told Krasnow in a letter dated Nov. 14, 2007, that he had ‘‘corrected” state computer files ‘‘to reflect the ‘Farm Road’” and other information as shown in Lawrence’s drawings.

Sixteen days later, the state’s director of planning data services, Michel A. Lettre, wrote to Krasnow saying the department is not putting Farm Road back on the map or making the other changes the analyst described.

‘‘Any questions about this matter should be directed to me,” Lettre wrote.

Reached at his office last week, Lettre said the assistant attorney general assigned to the Department of Planning told him that the ‘‘whole area is in litigation.”

He said it is not the department’s ‘‘habit” to make changes that a court might overturn.