U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon on Friday denied a request from Purple Line opponents to halt tree cutting on the Georgetown Branch Trail or other parts of the light-rail line route.
However, he wrote in his order that he’ll wait until after a preliminary injunction hearing scheduled for Sept. 19 to decide whether his court has the jurisdiction needed to rule on the issue.
The ruling comes as opponents of the 16.2-mile light-rail line allege the state is cutting down large trees on the trail despite saying they would not do so.
The plaintiffs in the new tree-cutting case are the same two Town of Chevy Chase residents and the trail group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail who have challenged the Purple Line in a long-running case that already made it through Leon’s court and is now being reviewed by the Court of Appeals. Last week, they filed the new case that alleges violations of the federal Highway Act.
The Court of Appeals in August 2016 granted a stay on Leon’s ruling that revoked the project’s federal approval. The appellate court’s stay allowed Maryland to secure the $900 million federal funding grant agreement and move forward with construction.
The appeals court is weighing Leon’s other decision in the case, which called for a new environmental study to determine if Metro’s ridership decline and safety issues would affect the Purple Line’s projected ridership.
In his new order, Leon said his court may lack jurisdiction in the new case due to the appeals court continuing its review of the previous case.
Leon wrote that the deferred order will allow him to “assess the complicated jurisdictional questions presented in this case, including whether plaintiffs’ current clams are inextricably intertwined with my earlier decision on appeal …..”
The state had said delaying the preparations for large-tree cutting, which includes removing brush and shrubs along the route over the next week and a half, could cost the state as much as $6.1 million. The state also said it is willing to wait until Sept. 20 to start cutting down larger trees, two days later than originally planned.
Maryland’s attorney in the case, Albert Ferlo, told the court last week that Purple Line Transit Partners, the state’s private partner, would not cut down any trees with trunks larger than 9 inches in diameter.
However, the plaintiffs allege trees larger than that already are being cut down.
In their latest court filing, attorneys for the plaintiffs submitted a declaration from county resident Mario Pascalev, who reported measuring a tree 13 inches in diameter that had been cut down along the trail. The plaintiffs also reported that a park police officer told them Purple Line crews along the trail were working with the understanding that trees “of up to 30 [inches] were allowed to be cut down.”
The state and its contractor on the project have also been criticized by local officials about the lack of information being released about construction.
Last week, Bethesda’s District 16 representatives state Sen. Susan Lee and Dels. Bill Frick, Ariana Kelly and Marc Korman sent a letter to Rob Chappel, the CEO of Purple Line Transit Partners, urging him to improve communication with local jurisdictions and the public.