GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT
“MOU” is not a barn-yard noise, it’s Memorandum Of Understanding. In other words, “an agreement.” As in an agreement between the city of Takoma Park and the State Highway Administration (SHA) about state route 410.
The city and the SHA have been working on a star-crossed Route 410 MOU for at least a couple of years, now. Every time the two parties seem close to consummation, they break up and start over again. That’s not too surprising since one party is schizophrenic and the other is paranoid.
The schizophrenic one is the SHA. Last year the agency said it didn’t own Route 410. This fall, the SHA says it does.
The paranoid one is the city. Twice in the last two years MOU talks have been scuttled because citizens suspected the council and the SHA were conspiring to widen Route 410.
Where is the sanity? Maybe the only sane one is much-buffeted city attorney Susan Silber. But, even a sane attorney can’t write a sane MOU while slipping on the marbles everyone around her has lost.
The first of the marble-losers is the SHA. It recently made a “180º turn,” as attorney Silber put it. from its previous legal position. Two years ago it “discovered” that technically they did not own some Takoma Park sections of Route 410. They could find no legal papers conveying those parts from the city to the state. So, maintenance, the SHA said, was the city’s responsibility – despite having taken responsibility for 80 years. By amazing coincidence, this discovery was made in the year of a particularly tight state budget squeeze.
That was the position at the heart of the MOU Silber and the SHA attorneys were negotiating for over a year. Suddenly this month, the SHA said, “Never mind!”
The SHA found (or “found”) city council minutes and maps from 1934. That was when the state extended Route 410 through Takoma Park. And, guess what? The SHA now says that the part of MD 410 that runs through the City has been part of the state highway system since the 1930s – with SHA responsible for maintaining the road.
So NOW, the SHA says it no longer needs the “perpetual easement” it sought in order to maintain the route. It sheepishly accepts maintenance and financial responsibility.
Do the twist
The city still wants an MOU. The city wants as much control as it can get over repairs, crosswalks, signage, traffic lights, sidewalks, etc. The SHA is not about to hand over control, but it is willing to coordinate and consult on most of those.
The council discussed these new twists with city attorney Silber in a Sept. 24 work session. Historic Takoma was there, too, and the council included them in the conversation. The group’s president Lorraine Pearsall and its attorney Michelle Rosenthal both addressed the council.
Which brings us to our other marble-loser – the city. Local interest group Historic Takoma is focused on the issue of widening. They fear that the SHA will at some future time resume its 1960s effort to widen two-lane Route 410. They have roused residents and the city government to press the SHA for a legal pledge not to widen it. These efforts have been in vain. The SHA can not make that pledge.
Their efforts did, however scuttle an MOU between SHA and the city in the spring of 2011. The agreement, which included the transfer of state-owned Flower Ave. to the city, along with a big chunk of money, was abandoned, then taken up anew as two separate negotiations, which continue.
Since then unmaintained sections of Route 410 have continued to deteriorate, except for some patching done by the city.
On the wall
Historic Takoma digs for any grain of evidence that the city has rights over the road and adjacent property – as legal protection against any future widening. They and their supporters push the city to assert these claims to the maximum in the MOU. “Every brick in the wall is vital.” said Ms Pearsall.
Their discussion was at points contentious. Some council members took exception to what they called personal attacks. Councilmember Tim Male said there is “no one on this council who is not thinking about the issue of road widening.” However, he said, his consituents were worried about other issues, too: maintenance, utility digs, trees, etc, and “I try to represent all those issues.”
Besides taking individual council members and staff to task for not focusing enough on the street-widening issue,, Ms Pearsall criticized the council and attorney for not negotiating hard enough. She was speaking, she said from her professional experience as a negotiator.
Her expertise was borne out. By the end of the discussion, the city had hired Historic Takoma’s attorney Michelle Rosenthal. Ms Rosenthal was engaged to meet with the city attorney to give the city the benefit of her legal views before negotiations with SHA continue.
Off the wall
Attorney Rosenthal had a different interpretation of the 1943 documents. She said that marginal notes on some of the project maps, “no work to be done within these limits” mean that those sections were not conveyed to the state by the city. Mayor Bruce Williams, who owns a construction company, was skeptical. He thought it meant that work was not needed to bring those sections of road up to specifications. He didn’t think it had any legal significance.
The SHA has the power of eminent domain over all Maryland roads. In other words – if the state wants it, they take it. This includes the power to widen an existing road, taking the property on each side to do so. As former SHA administrator Neil Pedersen explained in November, 2010 when he addressed the council and citizens, the SHA cannot exempt any roads because it would set a legal precedence. Then every Tom, Dick, and City would ask for the same.
He DID say that widening 410 would be ” totally inappropriate” Not only would it be counter to SHA policy, he said, but it would be “virtually impossible” if proposed in the future. He said there was “no chance in our lifetimes,” and three generations beyond. He pointed out the many legal hurdles, particularly in the portions of 410 through historical areas which have extra protections. The best protection, he said, was the knowledge that residents would put up a vigorous opposition, likely backed by local, county, and state politicians.