New legal turn in Grove land dispute
The state Court of Appeals has ruled that the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission can join a legal dispute between the historic Town of Washington Grove and a nationally known developer over a 12-plus-acre land parcel the town hopes to preserve as a meadow.
Town officials filed a complaint in 2005 in Montgomery County Circuit Court against developer Oxbridge Development at Washington Grove, hoping to exercise eminent domain and condemn the land. The property, now owned by Pennsylvania-based developer Toll Brothers, runs alongside the town near Amity Drive.
Town officials hoped to preserve the land as a natural buffer from 52 homes on a planned 53-plus acre subdivision, said Washington Grove Mayor Darryl Anderson.
In 2007, a Circuit Court judge ruled the town must be allowed to buy the land from Toll Brothers, which owns the entire 66.6 acres, to preserve the land as open space.
According to court documents, the Planning Commission has tried three times in Montgomery County Circuit Court to join the town's condemnation lawsuit and been overruled.
Documents also show that the county Planning Board approved Toll Brothers September 2001 subdivision plans on the condition that it preserve the parcel under the Montgomery County Legacy Open Space Functional Master Plan, which keeps green space, stream corridors and historic spaces amid urban development.
The town's concern has been over how the land could potentially be used. Town officials filed the lawsuit in 2005 after the County Council discussed using the land for a new school.
"This is an argument over definitions," said Anderson. "The whole point was to protect the historic nature of the town. The developer agreed to do that. Subsequently, the town discovered that Park and Planning could change that designation at any time — add a school, soccer fields, ice rinks or other park improvements. …The town wanted a meadow."
"From our perspective, the land would be retained as a meadow through the open-space program," said Valerie Berton, a Planning Commission spokeswoman. "It was to be dedicated to us from the developer to be preserved as a meadow. That was our intent all along."
Court documents show the Planning Board's 2005 approval cited an aim to enhance the setting and provide a buffer to Washington Grove, a railroad town listed on the National Historic Register. They indicate that former Washington Grove Mayor John Compton was present for the approval, which followed four years of negotiation.
The case will go to trial in Montgomery County Circuit Court to determine the land's per-acre value, said Anderson, who declined to give dollar figures on litigation costs or a planned purchase price.
"We don't know how much it is going to be, but we think we can afford it," Anderson said.
It's yet to be seen how long the litigation will last.
"Lurking within this dispute is the issue, among others, of the town's authority to condemn property lying outside its municipal boundary," wrote Court of Appeals Judge Glenn T. Harrell, Jr. of the 4th Appellate Circuit in Prince George's County in the preamble to his 74-page opinion March 12. A circuit court judge separated the issue in an April 2007 decision.
Harrell wrote that the town was not concerned about Planning Commission involvement until time came to determine a price for the land.