Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Village pedestrian tunnel ownership resolved at last

The county and the foundation will evenly split the responsibility

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After more than a decade of wrangling and dispute, county officials and the Montgomery Village Foundation have reached an agreement over who is responsible for maintaining the dozen pedestrian tunnels burrowed under the roads in Montgomery Village.

The foundation will inspect and maintain five tunnels and the county will take another five. Two undisputed tunnels on the Montgomery Village Golf Course will remain the golf course’s responsibility.

After meeting with county officials last Wednesday, Sharon Levine, the foundation’s director of government relations, was relieved to finally have closure.

‘‘It is settled and done,” she said Monday, praising the ‘‘yeoman’s work” the county did to resolve the issue. ‘‘It’s pretty straightforward now .... We’re so relieved to have an answer to this ongoing problem.”

The county will assume responsibility for the following tunnels: Midcounty Highway, Centerway Road near Whetstone Elementary School, Watkins Mill Road at Watkins Mill Elementary School and two tunnels beneath Stedwick Road — one at Stedwick Elementary School, the other between Center Court Condominiums and the YMCA.

The foundation will maintain the tunnels under Apple Ridge Road, Montgomery Village Avenue and the three under East Village Avenue.

Built when developer Kettler bBothers began constructing Montgomery Village in the 1960s, the tunnels first raised questions in the early 1990s. By 1995, the foundation and county started working to clarify who was responsible form them but had not resolved the issue.

By 1998, the foundation argued that the county should take over the 10 tunnels because, as part of the roadbed, they are in the public right of way. Foundation leaders searched in vain for years for the deeds to the roads, which they said Kettler Brothers handed over to the county, hoping to find an answer in them.

Edgar Gonzalez, who took over the case last year as director of transportation policy for the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation, found the answer not in the elusive deeds, but in archived permits for the roads’ construction.

Every tunnel had at least one permit, if not several permit files, some of which contained hundreds of pages of work orders and engineering plans.

Several factors went into determining whether a tunnel would fall under the county or the foundation: consistency with the county’s construction standards, if a county inspector had approved it at the time, and if it was included in the cost estimate in the permits, Gonzalez said.

‘‘Every individual tunnel was investigated on its own merits and it just turns out that it came out 50-50. That was a coincidence, not a decision where we flipped a coin ...” Gonzalez said. ‘‘It’s good that [the solution] was recognized as fair, reasonable and equitable.”

Only one tunnel has an uncertain future: the one under Montgomery Village Avenue near the Northcreek Community Center.

‘‘That was a tunnel that started with intent to be public, but it was never completed in accordance with county standards and the inspector never signed off,” Gonzales said. ‘‘We would consider accepting it even though so much time has passed, provided [the foundation] brings it up to correct standards.”

In recent years, several of the tunnels have become magnets for crime, prompting many residents to want them permanently plugged up.

Closing a tunnel will require a site plan amendment approved by the county Planning Board and a public abandonment procedure approved by the County Council, Gonzalez said.

He added that the foundation and the county must still work out an inspection schedule for the tunnels, but it will probably be every two years.