A group of property owners along the so-called “Farm Road” in Montgomery County received some good news despite a legal setback in their quest to have the roadway recognized.
Blocked at both ends and not recognized as a road on county maps, the road runs through a Sandy Spring community founded by freed slaves. A federal lawsuit filed in June alleged discrimination, fraud and an orchestrated attempt to leave the properties landlocked, devalued and open to future development.
On Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Judge Roger W. Titus rejected the residents’ motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction that sought to have the obstructions removed and street addresses assigned to the properties.
However, during the hearing, the property owners learned that one end of the road would be re-opened. Both sides also opened the door to a potential settlement before the case heads to trial.
According to the lawsuit, the 100 or so acres around Farm Road were settled after the Civil War by emancipated slaves. The properties were passed down through families, and residents say Farm Road has been used since the 1890s for ingress and egress. In an amendment to the original lawsuit, property owners now argue that since Farm Road has been in use for more than 20 years, it therefore qualifies as a public road.
The lawsuit was filed originally in June against the Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission, the company that surveyed a subdivision at the north end of the area, and resident Christine Hill, who has blocked access to Farm Road along her property at its southern end. The chairman of the MNCPPC, who was named individually in the suit, has since been dropped as a defendant.
Impediments to be removed
The owners are pushing for recognition of Farm Road so they can receive street addresses for their properties, which consist mostly of unimproved lots with a smattering of single-family homes.
Without Farm Road, they are technically landlocked and, under state law, cannot get addresses, which means they are unable to get building permits to add or improve existing structures.
The roadbed today is unpaved, uneven and choked in some areas with vegetation and trees knocked down in storms. The upper portion of the road, which ended at Goldmine Road, was cut off in 1994 when it was deeded as a conservation easement and re-tasked as a bike and hiking path.
The lower portion of the road, the focus of the lawsuit, historically ended at Brooke Road, where it was flanked by the Sandy Spring Slave Museum and a private residence. The owner of that home, a defendant in the case, had until the last few weeks blocked access to the portion of the road that crosses her property.
During the hearing, the home owner agreed to remove a truck and other impediments at the Brooke Road end of the roadway.
Roy Austin, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, called it a key concession for them.
“While they didn’t get everything they wanted in this hearing,” Austin said, “they feel like it is a step forward that those things will be removed.”
According to attorneys on both sides of the case, it was implied at the hearing that the case could be sent to the state courts, or even mediation.
Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission attorney Adrian R. Gardner said the ruling underscores the commission’s stance that the issue is not about race. He said the neighbors need to reach a consensus on either a right-of-way for Farm Road or find possible alternative routes.
“It’s not a civil rights case, it’s a property dispute,” Gardner said.
“We’re encouraged by the ruling and we hope the plaintiffs will sit down with the other defendant and find a solution. It’s not a civil right issue; it’s a neighborhood property issue to be resolved according to state law,” he said.
“If they can achieve regulatory compliance that requires access to a public road and doesn’t impinge on the conservation issues, we’ll issue addresses tomorrow,” Gardner added.