Updated at 2:20 p.m. — A Montgomery County judge has dismissed a citation against a Chevy Chase man who built a backyard fence in the potential path of the Purple Line.
Circuit Court Judge Gary Bair on Wednesday ruled that Ajay Bhatt will be able to keep the fence and that he technically could claim ownership of the land.
The $500 fine originally imposed by the county was suspended in January 2014, but a District Court judge still ruled that Bhatt had illegally built the fence in the county’s right-of-way.
Bhatt lives in Chevy Chase on a property that backs up to the Capital Crescent Trail and the planned path of the light rail system.
Montgomery County fined Bhatt $500 for building the fence in May 2013 about 18 feet into what it said was the public right-of-way. It’s also in the path of a planned retaining wall for the Purple Line.
The case drew attention because of Bhatt’s outspoken opposition to the Purple Line.
Bhatt is the leader of a Chevy Chase-based nonprofit called the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, which has filed suit against federal, state and local government agencies over environmental concerns surrounding the 16-mile light rail.
Longtime Purple Line supporter Wayne Phyillaier wrote a detailed blog post about the fence in March, arguing that the county shouldn’t allow new structures to be built in the Purple Line’s path so close to the project’s planned construction start.
The Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail called Phyillaier’s post a personal attack and indicated he was behind the original complaint to Montgomery County.
Bair ruled that Montgomery County failed to prove the land inside the fence was in its right-of-way. The county bought the former railroad right-of-way in 1988 and converted it into the trail with plans for a future transit system.
Bhatt’s neighbors testified that an older fence on the same spot stood as early as 1956 and definitely through the 1960s.
A real estate lawyer testified that the 1890 deed from a previous property owner to the railroad company didn’t convey right-of-way. So when the county took over the land in the 80’s, there was no right-of-way transferred in that spot.
Bair went on to rule that Bhatt could claim the land as his own under an “adverse possession” rule, meaning it would be his even if the county was able to prove it was part of its right-of-way. That could mean the state would have to purchase the land from Bhatt in order to build its Purple Line project.
Bhatt told the judge he wasn’t interested in being given title to the land, only that the right-of-way citation for the fence be dismissed.
Photo via Wayne Phyillaier