Planning Board Urged Not To Give Up Land for Beltway Widening
County executive warns against taking of ‘fragile’ parkland for toll lane project
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich is asking the region’s planning commission not to cede any land to the state for Gov. Larry Hogan’s plans to add toll lanes to the Capital Beltway.
“Many of our parks, trees and streams are in an increasingly fragile state. We should take all necessary steps to protect these resources as part of our efforts to maintain clean water and air and to mitigate the devastating effects of climate change,” Elrich wrote in a letter to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
Hogan has proposed adding toll lanes to the Beltway and Interstate 270 using a public-private partnership.
The proposal has been drawing sharp opposition from residents and lawmakers throughout Montgomery County. Elrich has repeatedly argued that widening the Beltway would lead to disruption of neighborhoods, existing overpasses and adjacent parkland.
The commission, a bi-county agency of Montgomery and Prince George’s County, owns parkland along the Beltway that includes Rock Creek Park, Sligo Creek Golf Course and Northwest Branch Recreational Park. The Montgomery County Planning Board’s five members make up half of the commissioners.
Carol Rubin, the special projects coordinator with Montgomery’s park and planning commission for the road-widening study, said that the state was granted an easement through the parks owned by the commission when the Beltway was constructed in the 1960s.
The commission has the discretion as to whether the easement should be expanded to include room for additional lanes, Rubin said.
Rubin said the commission is acting as a cooperating agency with the state and provides comments at each step in the review process. The state, she said, will determine which type of project design it will pursue by the end of the year, and at that point the commission will weigh in.
“The commissioners have made it clear that they’re not the ones to say we’re not going to give you land. They’re looking to elected officials to give them direction,” she said.
Rubin said the commission isn’t legally bound to follow the direction of the council members or county executive. But she noted that council members appoint members of the Planning Board, so there is a political element to the process. Elrich and the council have opposed aspects of the project.
Rubin said that the commission has estimated the state would need 50 to 80 acres of parkland for any of the current design proposals.
“They’re talking about adding two to four lanes. I don’t know how they’re going to do that without impacting it [parkland],” she said.
Under state law, the State Highway Administration only has the authority to acquire private land, said Rubin. She said she doesn’t believe the state can mandate the taking of parkland owned by the commission, and that should there be a dispute between the agencies, the matter could go to court.
“It’s really a legal question. It’s an ongoing question, but the commission’s opinion is that they cannot do it and they need to negotiate with us,” she said.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.email@example.com