More than 3,700 Maryland homeowners in the Interstate 495 and I-270 corridors have received official letters from the State Highway Administration in recent weeks, informing them that surveyors may need access to their property.
The communications, which began in October, are a preliminary part of the Hogan administration’s plans to expand the two highways. About 80% have been sent to homes near the Beltway, and about 20% have been sent to homes near I-270.
The number of homes receiving notices — 3,717 — is far higher than most local elected officials realized, even those intimately involved in tracking the project. It also triggered a scathing rebuke from Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D).
Franchot, considered a crucial swing vote on the Board of Public Works for Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s highway plan, learned about the letters from a Maryland Matters report on Monday.
“That’s ridiculous. It’s wrong,” said Montgomery County Council President Sidney Katz (D) when he learned about the number. “There is no need for them to [do this]. It’s just plain wrong.”
County leaders have urged the state to work within the existing right-of-way and to prioritize transit as a way to ease the region’s choking traffic congestion. (Their mantra has become “move people, not cars.”) On Monday night more than 300 people attended an “emergency rally” against plan.
“What’s shocking about that number is it highlights the extraordinary reach that this project is going to have,” said Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery) whose Silver Spring-based district is bisected by the Capital Beltway. “It just highlights the massive destruction.”
In a Facebook post Monday, Franchot blasted the transportation agency for doing even preliminary work along I-495.
“Given that the Board of Public Works, to date, has only authorized the Maryland Department of Transportation to move forward with a P3 solicitation on I-270, and that we explicitly removed the Beltway from this first phase of the project, there should be no reason for the State Highway Administration to be doing any sort of work, whatsoever, on these properties,” the comptroller wrote.
In her letter to homeowners, Lisa B. Choplin, director of State Highway’s I-495 & I-270 public-private partnership office, wrote that the surveyors need access to individual lots to conduct “field research and survey activities… in order to gain a better understanding of the properties, land use, existing environmental conditions and cultural resources…”
“These surveys may include visual identification of land features, streams, wetlands, noise barriers, utilities, etc.,” the letter continued.
Receiving a letter does not mean that a home or parcel is in the path of the project, only that the state is working to complete its understanding of the area.
“These surveys are intended to inform the environmental impact review,” Terry L. Owens, head of Communications and Outreach in the State Highway Administration’s I-495 & I-270 P3 Office, in a statement.
“[N]o homes would be acquired until the environmental review and the P3 agreement is complete and only after the individual home purchases go back to [the Board of Public Works] for review and approval.”
On Monday, Maryland Matters reported on efforts by Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D-Montgomery) to determine how many property-owners in the Village of North Chevy Chase, a small municipality in his district, had received letters from SHA, but the agency rejected his request on the grounds that the letters contained protected information.
Carr asked the agency to review its denial, and on Tuesday the lawmaker was informed that SHA would be willing to send him copies of all 3,717 notices — but only after all the identifying information was redacted. In other words, 3,717 identical copies of the original template correspondence.
To receive these letters, Carr would be required to first fork over $3,015.88 to compensate the agency for the work that would be required in going through each notice individually. In an interview, Carr said he intended to decline that offer.
“They don’t want anyone to know the footprint that they’re contemplating for this project,” he said, “so they’re hiding behind the Maryland Public Information Act, claiming that they are required to deny this information.”
“They want to drag their feet, throw up roadblocks, delay, and prevent… the sharing of that information,” he added. “And they’re blatant about it. They don’t seem to even be hiding what they’re up to.”
While attending a Labor Day parade in in Gaithersburg in 2018, Hogan told project opponents, “I can assure you we’re not taking your houses.”
Carr said he was surprised that nearly 4,000 homeowners have received official notices from state planners regarding on-site property inspections.
“That number was much higher than what I was expecting to see,” he said.
“[Transportation Secretary] Pete Rahn said this project was going to have shocking innovation,” Carr added. “Well, it appears this is going to have a shocking potential property impact.”