Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2007

ICC neighbors decry ruling that allows road to proceed

Construction could begin soon, state transportation officials say

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
Connie McKenna of Derwood is dismayed by a federal judge’s decision last week to dismiss lawsuits challenging the adequacy of environmental tests for the controversial Intercounty Connector highway, which will pass within about 400 yards of her home. The judge’s reasoning ‘‘tells you the ICC will be clean or that federal law on this subject does not protect Americans from highways that are rammed through their back yards,” McKenna said.
The federal judge’s decision giving a green light to construction of the Intercounty Connector highway left some residents along the path seeing red.

On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Alexander Williams Jr. dismissed arguments in lawsuits brought by county residents, the Audubon Naturalist Society, Environmental Defense and the Sierra Club to stop the Laurel-to-Gaithersburg road because of errors in the air quality and other studies. The groups has 60 days to appeal to the federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., but a spokesman for the Audubon Naturalist Society said no decision has been made yet.

‘‘Although defendants’ actions, in some instances, may not have been a paragon of perfection, the court, nonetheless, cannot find anything that rises to the level of a meaningful violation,” Williams wrote in the 106-page opinion. ‘‘For all of these reasons, the court concludes that there is no legal or equitable basis to prevent the Inter-County Connector from moving forward.”

The $2.4 billion, 18.8-mile road is expected to be completed in phases by 2012.

‘‘Who is he trying to satisfy here?” said Connie McKenna, who lives on Briardale Road in Derwood. ‘‘He said he was troubled by the air-monitoring issue. Even he could tell putting an air monitor a mile and a half away from where children would be breathing air pipe emissions was weak. But it didn’t cause him a moment’s hesitation because he managed to get the decision in a few days before the state wanted to start construction.”

Construction could begin as soon as the state receives all of the required permits, said Maryland State Highway Administration spokeswoman Kellie Boulware.

Thursday’s decision is a sign of the extraordinary lengths taken to follow state and federal requirements for the project, State Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said.

‘‘We’ll keep moving forward,” he said. ‘‘We’ve tried to work in good faith with all participants, and we’ll continue to do that.”

Montgomery Councilwoman Nancy M. Floreen, an ICC proponent, said she respects the plaintiffs’ technical and legal concerns, ‘‘but the truth is they never wanted a road.”

More efforts to stop the road will drive up costs and add to uncertainty in communities around it, said Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park.

Prince George’s council members say the ICC will benefit Montgomery at Prince George’s expense.

But County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) sees the highway as a boon. It would open access to businesses in Montgomery County’s technology corridor and help boost retail tenants at Konterra, a large mixed-use project being built near the road’s eastern end in Laurel, said John Erzen, a Johnson spokesman.

As for McKenna, she fears the road, which will be built about 400 feet from her home, will worsen her child’s asthma. And she is concerned that the engine exhaust from so many vehicles will be harmful to those living near the long-debated road.

The state conducted an air quality study using monitors a mile and a half away from another highway to get an estimate of the air quality near the ICC. That met the federal air quality requirement for the project, the judge wrote.

‘‘The court must, of course, refrain from taking a position on whether the ICC should or should not be built or whether there are alternatives that make better sense politically,” the Williams wrote. ‘‘The court’s obligation is to merely ensure that the procedures mandated by these environmental statutes have been complied with.”

‘‘So either that tells you the ICC will be clean or that federal law on this subject does not protect Americans from highways that are rammed through their back yards,” McKenna said.

The judge’s ruling also surprised Kay M. Guinane, who also lives along the construction path, just north of the Briardale neighborhood.

‘‘If the judge is correct the state jumped through all the hoops and met all the environmental standards, that tells me we have a big problem with our environmental standards,” Guinane said.

A sound wall will separate her neighborhood from the ICC, but that, too, is flawed, McKenna said.

‘‘They’ll put up soundwalls which will have an attractive side and an ugly side,” she said. ‘‘Guess which side we’re going to be looking at 24⁄7. The good-looking side is on the toll road side for the motorists driving past it who’ll have a 3-second view.”

McKenna’s neighbors have received letters recently asking for permission to photograph inside their homes to establish a record in case the construction blasts damage them, she said.

‘‘Nobody wants the state to come in and have a photographic record of the inside of our homes,” McKenna said. ‘‘But others are saying, ‘What if I get a crack in my foundation?’”

Guinane said she does not understand how the ICC makes economic sense at a time when Maryland has a budget crisis.

‘‘Needless to say, we’re not very happy,” she said. ‘‘We have this road going through the middle of the community that is going to cause all these negative impacts as well as a budget crisis. They don’t seem to understand the ICC is a big part of the state’s budget problems.”

Guinane said the Briardale community would be cut off from the retail stores that she and others can walk to now.

‘‘We’ll be completely walled in,” she said.