Updated Saturday – Maryland’s highest court ruled Friday a Chevy Chase man can’t claim ownership of land behind his house and in the path of the planned Purple Line light-rail.
The state’s Court of Appeals reversed a Montgomery County Circuit Court ruling that Ajay Bhatt, whose home backs up to county-owned land dedicated to the Purple Line, could claim part of that land for a newly built backyard fence through adverse possession because the land was not proven to be publicly-owned right-of-way.
Bhatt, the president of a group advocating against building the Purple Line, was fined $500 by Montgomery County in October 2013 for building the fence about 18 feet into the county-owned land.
He appealed the decision and in December 2014, a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge dismissed the citation on the basis the county failed to prove the land was a public right-of-way.
Circuit Court Judge Gary Bair also ruled Bhatt could claim ownership of the land through adverse possession, a decision that could have impacted efforts by the county and state to clear the Capital Crescent Trail right-of-way for the Purple Line.
Many homeowners in Chevy Chase with properties that back up to the trail have fences, sheds or other backyard equipment that are technically on county property and will have to be moved before construction of the light-rail project.
Bhatt, who in 2006 bought the house in the 3300 block of Coquelin Terrace from his aunt, told the Circuit Court he recalled seeing an older fence as early as 1977 on the spot where he built his new one. Other witnesses testified a backyard fence had been present on the spot since the 1960s.
But Court of Appeals Judge Glenn Harrell wrote in the decision released Friday that the former railroad route was a publicly-owned right-of-way. The court also said it has remained a publicly-owned right-of-way since 1988, when the county bought it under the Rails-to-Trails Act.
Harrell wrote the land within Bhatt’s new fence but beyond his property line was never abandoned, so Bhatt can’t claim it as his own.
“Because no evidence was presented by Bhatt to show that the current use of the right-of-way by Montgomery County is unreasonable or that the Railroad or the County abandoned the right-of-way, no claim for adverse possession will lie,” Harrell wrote.
“If the County believed that the property behind the fence belonged to it, I do wish that it had taken appropriate action in the 1980s, rather than waiting all these years,” Bhatt said Saturday. “Some people have suggested that I made a land grab. The fact is that I replaced my existing fence, in the same location where a fence has existed since at least 1960. I requested and received a permit from the county only to be cited after I incurred significant construction and landscaping expense. That seems like a burden no one should have had to bear.”
The decision comes as the county’s Department of Transportation has begun telling residents along the planned Purple Line route they have until April 30 to tear down fences, sheds and other structures built on the publicly-owned right-of-way.
In the decision, Harrell cited a verse from the Grateful Dead song “Casey Jones” to explain how allowing Bhatt to claim the land “hints at plenty of potential trouble” for the Purple Line project:
The Maryland Transit Administration is evaluating proposals from teams of private contractors bidding to design, build and operate the system. County officials expect construction on the 16-mile light-rail to begin either late this year or early next year.
Bhatt said Saturday "it appears" he was targeted by the county because of his activism as president of the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, a group seeking to maintain the trail in its current state that's suing the government over environmental studies of the light-rail.