Return of the Worms


Dear Readers,

Let’s open a great big can of worms, shall we? Here’s a good one – The Route 410 Fracas!! Where’s the can opener?

Euuwwww! Look at that slimy mess! How disgusting!

We’ll just pour it over this letter from the State Highway Administration (SHA)!

Oh, did you want to read it first? Don’t worry, we’ll tell you what it says!

It says something like, “We thought we owned 410, then we discovered we didn’t own it, but now we think we own it because we thought we owned it.”

The letter is from Neil J. Pedersen, the SHA administrator. He came to Takoma Park last fall to address a public hearing about Route 410. That’s a state highway passing through the city on Ethan Allen and Philadelphia Avenues, and a short block of Carroll Avenue.

Owned or Pwned?

The SHA thought it owned those roads, so it maintained them. Then it realized the city owned them – so it said the city had to maintain them, even though they were still part of a state highway. A road can be a state highway even while it is still owned by the local city.

The agency proposed that the city hand over ownership. The SHA would resume road maintenance. SHA offered to swap Flower Avenue in exchange. They offered a pile of money, too.

But, with memories of past SHA attempts to widen 410, residents pressured the council to kill the “swap” deal. The city should keep 410 ownership at all costs, said the activists – giving it to the SHA would mean the bulldozer’s nose under the shrubbery.
The deal was killed. The recent SHA letter is the beginning of new negotiations. It has been studied, parsed, x-rayed, and chemically analyzed by staff and city counsel.

All of them scrunch their faces into “Whaaaa?” expressions over Pedersen’s claim that SHA has a “prescriptive easement” on 510. What this means – they THINK – is that because the SHA treated the roads as though they owned them for 50 years, they as good as own them.

Forget it!

But “own” is the wrong word, cautions the staff. Just FORGET the word “ownership,” OK? A city can’t OWN a road. What it has is a “right-of-way.”

With the right-of-way comes not “ownership,” but responsibility – responsibility to maintain it and control traffic.
The city could hand over the right-of-way to another entity – such as the SHA – along with those responsibilities. The SHA does not want the responsibilities without the right-of-way.

BECAUSE it doesn’t want the PRECEDENT. There are other state highway sections around Maryland which SHA doesn’t have the rights-of-way to. The locals maintain them. If the locals find out the SHA maintain OUR roads, they will want SHA to maintain THEIR roads. This is not an expense the SHA wants to take on.

The Professional’s View

However, the city attorney says Pedersen’s claim that the SHA has a prescriptive easement is legally dubious. An “easement” is one way to grant right-of-way to the SHA. “Prescriptive” means that they’ve got that easement, even if it wasn’t officially granted to them, but simply because for 50 years they thought they had it and the city didn’t correct them.

OK, so it’s a starting point for negotiations. “It’s the opening shot,” said city attorney Susan Silber. She also noted that she’s been advised by other municipalities to “be very careful” in dealing with the SHA. Agreements don’t always turn out to be what was expected, she was warned.

Deputy City Manager Suzanne Ludlow added that she believes the SHA is eager to enter discussions and settle the matter soon.

Goals Two and Three

Keeping “ownership” is not the city’s only goal. As Councilmember Reuben Snipper said his constituents tell him, the number one priority may be keeping “ownership,” but next comes maintenance, and work permits. Those latter two points are “crucial” he said at the June 6 council meeting.

Utility work permits are important because after they dig up the streets to get at pipes, gas and water utilities often leave potholes and rough places. The city want’s more control over the process.

What Year Is This?

Several citizens offered public comments

Milford Sprecher of Albany Avenue said “It’s no longer 1965,” the year residents fought to keep 410 a two-lane road through the city. Times have changed, he said, the state couldn’t afford to widen 410 even if it wanted too, and it could not withstand the political battle it would encounter if it tried.

He urged the city to make an agreement with the SHA to maintain the road. He said the “prescriptive easement” may not be the best plan, but granting them the necessary authority was in order. The city can’t afford to take on the maintanance.
Whether the city or the state has the right-of-way is immaterial, he pointed out. If the state wants to seize land by right of eminent domain, it will do so.

Lorraine Pearsall of Historic Takoma responded that “it WILL be 1965 again!” because of increasing traffic pressures on the road system. She urged vigilance, saying “This is a threat! It will never go away!”

– Gilbert.

About the Author

Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog. Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park's mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.