Washington Post, November 23, 2007
Maryland highway officials and the philanthropic Eugene B. Casey Foundation are battling in court over the state's decision to seize 405 acres of the foundation's land for the intercounty connector, even though the land is seven miles from the highway's planned route.
The state has taken the wooded, rolling hills in Boyds, and has offered to pay the foundation $3.44 million, to replace some of the parkland and mature forests that will be bulldozed to build the six-lane toll highway between Gaithersburg and Laurel. The Montgomery County parcel is part of the Maryland State Highway Administration's "environmental mitigation" plan, which received federal approval.
Environmentalists say the Casey land is too far away to help the wildlife in the more than 900 acres of forests, wetlands and parkland that the 18.8-mile highway will destroy. The bigger issue: The foundation, its attorney said, doesn't want to sell and thinks the state has no right to the property.
The Casey Foundation is one of the Washington area's largest philanthropic organizations, with a net worth of $166 million, according to its 2005 federal tax filing. Eugene B. Casey, who died in 1986, was a developer and one of upper Montgomery's largest land owners. Betty B. Casey, 80, his widow, lives in Potomac, according to voter records.
The state took ownership of the foundation's property in May, after the trustees declined to negotiate a fair market price, said Melinda Peters, the intercounty connector's project director. Upon seizing the land, the state deposited its purchase offer of $3.44 million with the Montgomery Circuit Court and filed a condemnation case against Betty Casey and other trustees. A judge is expected to rule in spring on whether the state has the right to seize the land.
If the state wins the court case, the land would be turned over to the county's park system. But, Park said, the foundation might then appeal because Maryland has no case law on the state's rights to seize land far outside a project's right of way.
Full construction on the highway began last week, after a federal judge in Greenbelt rejected two lawsuits that alleged that the project violates federal environmental laws. The intercounty connector, estimated to cost $2.4 billion, is scheduled to fully open by 2012.
A ruling on the extent of the state's eminent domain powers could have far-reaching ramifications. Such "environmental mitigation" packages to replace wetlands, forests and other habitat have become commonplace, particularly on large, controversial projects.
However, as development grows denser near projects, highway officials said, they have had to find replacement land farther away. As part of rebuilding the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, for example, regional highway officials created or preserved 100 acres of wetlands in Stafford County and planted river grasses at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to replace those lost to the larger bridge.
-This article deals with the issue of true intent in a taking by an acquiring agency. Is the intent of the acquiring agency to find the easiest way out of a required mitigation project? The acquiring agency may totally fail to repair the harm of a project or simply mitigate this situation by replacing the acquisition with something available elsewhere. It is possible the statute, requiring mitigation for forestland taken for a roadway project, has no relationship to the project area affected.