Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Case of lost Sandy Spring road sparks civil rights suit

Residents file claim in U.S. District Court after private road omitted from county records

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Sandy Spring residents who lost access to their property when a long-used private road disappeared from county records have filed suit in federal court claiming that other landowners and their agents conspired with Montgomery County planning officials to commit fraud and deprive them of their civil and property rights.

Meanwhile, at a hearing Tuesday in Rockville, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Nelson W. Rupp Jr. dismissed a related suit filed by some of the aggrieved landowners. Rupp said the plaintiffs should have known their road had been erased.

His ruling is not believed to affect the federal case, which was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

Eight plaintiffs in the federal suit, all African American, contend that Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission officials failed to do their duty when they eliminated the gravel ‘‘Farm Road” from records, based on plans presented by landowners who were seeking to develop the neighboring Dellabrooke subdivision. The commission’s Montgomery County Planning Board approved that development in 1998.

References to the road appear on deeds dating back more than 100 years.

Other defendants include a nearby landowner, a neighbor who in 2006 put up a chain closing the road, and the engineering firm Macris, Hendricks and Glascock of Montgomery Village.

The plaintiffs, many of whom inherited the land from ancestors who were freed slaves, contend that their due process and equal protection rights were violated by the defendants and that the taking of their property rights was racially motivated.

They are seeking almost $10 million in compensatory and punitive damages from the defendants.

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett has urged the Planning Board to acknowledge the road and issue addresses to the plaintiffs who cannot get services and permits they need to build on their property. He was rebuffed by a lawyer for the board who said the only way the government can resolve the dispute is to take the land and create a public street.

Sandy Spring activist Steve Kanstoroom took up the residents’ cause after fighting is own battle with the planning agency over what he contends were faulty plans from Macris, Hendricks and Glascock that affected an easement on his property.

Kanstoroom pushed their case with Leggett and county attorney Leon Rodriguez. In an interview with The Gazette, Rodriguez said he helped find the residents pro bono counsel to argue their case in federal court.

M-NCPPC attorney Adrian R. Gardner issued a statement Tuesday gratified the court dismissed the Circuit Court suit.

‘‘We strongly encourage the plaintiffs and anyone who is interested in gaining access to their property to talk with each other — neighbor to neighbor — to work out a fair compromise,” he said.