Finally Making Inroads?
The battle over "Farm Road" heats up
From left to right: Bernice Martin, Malik Carter, Steve Kanstoroom, Donald Awkard and William Rounds
IT'S BEEN MORE THAN 15 years since the Montgomery County Planning Board approved Dellabrooke, a 43-home upscale development in Sandy Spring. But a fight rages on about a nearby road in a historic African-American community that residents—some of whom are descendants of former slaves—say was blocked when the new houses were built.
Farm Road has disappeared and reappeared on official maps over the years. It wasn’t included on the developer’s submissions when the planning board approved the new subdivision in 1999. The board allowed some houses to be built over what residents say was part of the road, and also designated a swath of land for conservation that older maps show was part of the road.
Today, there are about a half dozen houses on the gravel road, and several properties have no structures. In some places it appears wide enough to be a road, and elsewhere it’s overgrown, more like a path. At some points along what older maps show to be the road, the lots now belong to Dellabrooke residents, and the road runs through those properties. In order to reach their land, property owners along Farm Road have been using Brooke Road to the south or traveling over other properties.
In 2004, when a member of the African-American community sought to develop his land, he learned that he didn’t have an address, and that he couldn’t get one because his lot is on a road that officially no longer existed. An address is crucial for anyone wanting to build or make other improvements on their property. No address, no building permit.
Fast forward to last June, when Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus held a hearing in Sandy Spring. William Rounds, who said his family has owned property along Farm Road since 1904, wept. “Fix the road,” he said. “All I ever dreamed about was having my family on this property from my heritage.” He said he has spent $17,000 of his own money to refurbish the road.
The residents of the African-American community have been aided by Steve Kanstoroom, a neighbor who has experience battling government bureaucracies. Kanstoroom has helped generate publicity about the community, and has set up a website called savesandyspring.org. He received a community service award from County Executive Ike Leggett in 2013.
In July 2014, Leggett took another crucial step. After several embarrassing news reports, pressure from Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich (D-At Large), and a couple of lawsuits, Leggett told the Montgomery County Planning Department to give addresses to the Farm Road property owners.
Problem solved. Well, not quite.
The addresses linked the houses to other roads, not to Farm Road, which planning officials maintain is not actually a road. The new addresses still don’t solve the issue of access as some of the landowners would have to share driveways or go over another person’s property to reach the road linked to their address. “They are still landlocked,” Kanstoroom says.
Meanwhile, the planning board spent just over $120,000 in 2013 on a report that cleared the department of any wrongdoing in the Dellabrooke approval.
Kanstoroom and the neighbors have kept up the pressure. In January, Maryland’s highest court gave the African-American landowners an opening to press a lawsuit in Montgomery County Circuit Court against the planning agency, a surveying company and some property owners. And separately, the Leggett administration has agreed to survey Farm Road to see if it could be considered a real road with all the benefits that confers.
Joel Leininger, the surveyor hired by the county, says “the road has been there for decades.” The planning board’s general counsel, Adrian Gardner, declined to discuss the issue. Leggett spokeswoman Esther Bowring said the government is waiting for Leininger’s final report before deciding next steps.
Elrich says the planning board’s approval of Dellabrooke back in 1999 was wrong. “They did this to people who did not have the wherewithal to hire the kind of attorney they needed,” he says. “This is just another historic black community that has been treated like crap.”