Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2007

Tunnel debate still leads nowhere

Meeting today could finally shed light on who is responsible for Village passageways

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Children walk through the pedestrian tunnel under Stedwick Road near Stedwick Elementary School on Friday.
When the Kettler brothers started building Montgomery Village in the 1960s, they envisioned an intertwined planned community where residents would be free to walk between neighborhoods without worry.

Pedestrian tunnels burrowed beneath many of the roads they built made perfect sense.

But decades later, those 10 tunnels are often at the root of crime and teenage mischief, and many Village residents want to see them closed.

A long-standing debate over who is responsible for maintaining the tunnels is also at play, and could be closer to being settled after a meeting today with county officials.

Currently, the homeowners corporations contiguous to the tunnels pay for their upkeep. Most have not kept specific accounting records, and exactly how much is spent on the tunnels Village-wide each year is unclear, officials said.

In several of the more unsafe tunnels, the county installed lights, but even knowing who pays the electric bill seems to be a mystery.

‘‘I bet you nobody knows the answer to tell you the truth,” said Sharon Levine, director of government relations with the Montgomery Village Foundation. ‘‘... I surmise that it is probably the homeowners corporations that are paying.”

On Tuesday, Levine found a 1995 letter that attempted to layout a plan by which the foundation and county would share responsibility, but that plan was never enacted, she said.

The Montgomery Village Foundation believes the county government should be responsible for tunnel maintenance and related costs, contending that the deeds to the tunnels transferred to the county at the same time the county took over responsibility for roads in the community.

But the county disagrees.

Village leaders point to Old English law that states that anything in the roadbed should be considered part of the road.

‘‘Considering the fact that these are county roads ... the right-of-way should be county responsibility,” said Pat Huson, the foundation’s executive vice president.

But the foundation has been unable to locate documents that show that the Kettler Brothers development company transferred the tunnels to the county.

‘‘We cannot find any such dedication [documents]. ... I’ve looked everywhere,” said Levine. ‘‘We’ve exhausted what we know to do.”

But the county may have found some documents that will shed light on the situation.

Edgar Gonzalez, director of transportation for the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation, confirmed that he located some relevant records several months ago, and is scheduled to meet with Village leaders today to discuss his findings.

Gonzalez declined to specify what the records show in advance of the meeting.

Patrick J. Lacefield, spokesman for County Executive Isiah Leggett, said the county has ‘‘a whole panoply of different kinds of documents that clarify what’s what.” He would not say whether the deeds were among them.

At the foundation’s annual meeting with county officials on Feb. 9, Leggett said he would ‘‘take a thorough look at the tunnel question,” acknowledging that tending to the tunnels comes at a high cost to homes corporations.

But the cost would be high for the county as well, he said, and was also worried by the ‘‘legal implications” of the county taking control of the tunnels.

‘‘Hopefully, we can put this to rest once and for all as far as the county’s responsibility and the foundation’s responsibility,” he said.

Parties on both sides hoped to know more after today’s meeting.

To gauge whether the tunnels should be closed, the foundation asked for resident input a few months ago and received about 25 letters, e-mails and phone calls, some representing condominium associations.

The tunnel under Stedwick Road, between Center Court Condominiums and the Village Center shopping mall, has sparked particular worry.

‘‘The people who called, almost without exception, wanted to close down [the tunnel under] Stedwick Road,” Levine said.

While the board of the nearby Herons Cove Condominiums wants to permanently close that tunnel, the Center Court board was mixed, as were representatives from the YMCA, Levine said.

The tunnel beneath Midcounty Highway has also drawn opposition.

But while plugging up a tunnel may address one set of issues, it raises new ones — especially since every school day, students use several of the tunnels to bypass busy roads.

‘‘You have to look at it another way: What about traffic? What about pedestrian safety?” Levine said.