ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s top court has revived a longstanding legal battle to enforce an easement that would allow property owners to build or improve existing structures on an otherwise landlocked swath of land in Sandy Spring, settled by emancipated slaves after the Civil War.
The Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that a Montgomery County trial judge prematurely dismissed the residents’ lawsuit, first filed in 2008, in which they seek to enforce the easement over “Farm Road” against the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. According to the residents, the unmarked path has provided access to their properties since the late 19th century.
A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge had said the residents waited too long to file suit alleging wrongful interference with an easement, saying they knew or should have known of the interference with the access road no later than 2003. Thus, the three-year statute of limitations for filing suit expired in 2005.
The Court of Special Appeals upheld the dismissal in 2013.
But the Court of Appeals, in a unanimous decision last week, said the residents’ complaint expressly stated that they did not learn of the interference with the easement until 2007, thus creating a dispute as to when they knew or should have known of the interference. The factual dispute required a trial, not a dismissal, the high court said in sending the case back to circuit court.
“Accordingly, where it is unclear from the facts and allegations on the face of the … complaint what petitioners knew and when they knew it, the question of accrual rests on a determination of fact,” Judge Clayton Greene Jr. wrote for the high court. “This is a question appropriate for the fact finder, not the appellate court.”
Adrian R. Gardner, the park commission’s general counsel, said he is “gratified that the Court of Appeals has validated our position on 12 of 13” claims brought by the residents.
“We are going to evaluate how to deal with the jump ball that remains in dispute,” Gardner said.
“I plan to discuss it with my client and with the plaintiffs; I plan to discuss it with my co-defendants,” he added. “I will also act within the best interest of the taxpayers in resolving a contested litigation.”
The residents’ attorney, Michael R. Sklaire, could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon. He is with Greenberg Traurig LLP in McLean, Va.
Farm Road does not exist on any county maps but runs through an area of about 100 acres. The properties were passed down through families over time, who, according to current residents, used Farm Road since the 1890s for ingress and egress.
The lower portion of the road historically ended at Brooke Road, where it was flanked by the Sandy Spring Slave museum and a private residence.
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 by the park and planning commission.
The commission says the residents knew or should have known of the easement interference since the 1994 cutoff.
But the residents state in their complaint that they did not discover the interference with the easement until 2007, when they unsuccessfully sought recognition of Farm Road so they could receive street addresses for their properties. Without recognition, they were technically landlocked and, under state law, cannot get addresses, which made them unable to get building permits to add or improve existing structures.
The residents first filed suit on June 16, 2008, in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. The suit was dismissed on July 15, 2011, for failure to exhaust state remedies.
They refiled suit on Aug. 11, 2011, in Montgomery County Circuit Court, only to have that claim dismissed on statute of limitations grounds. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the dismissal in a reported Sept. 9, 2013, opinion written by Judge Shirley M. Watts, who has since been elevated to the Court of Appeals.
Watts recused herself from the high court’s consideration of the residents’ appeal, which the court heard last November. She was replaced on the panel by retired Judge John F. McAuliffe, who was specially assigned.
The case is William Rounds et al. v. Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission et al., No. 19, September Term 2014. Argued Nov. 6, 2014. Decided Jan. 30, 2015.