SNOW HILL — Uncomfortable with the idea that it would amount to “stealing land” in the words of one elected official, the Worcester County Commission chose Tuesday to deny a state-developed corridor vision plan for Route 589.
“I can’t vote on anything that would take away personal property rights without money to compensate for it,” said Commission President Bud Church.
Though the foundation for the vision plan has been building for nearly two decades, actions taken within the last few months sparked an ember of civil unrest amongst some property owners in Ocean Pines who found out that, if adopted, the new plan would make it impossible for many to develop huge portions of their property.
“It’s just plain wrong,” said attorney Mark Cropper, who represented the interests of several property owners who would be affected by the vision plan.
If accepted, the state proposal would have extended a 160-foot right-of-way around Route 589, split evenly on either side of the road and including the width of the road itself. The right-of-way would be in place for the eventual expansion of the road and the plan itself would seek to regulate “transportation enhancements, access control and land use management along the MD 589 corridor,” according to the plan.
Several members of the public spoke up during a hearing concerning the vision plan and almost all comments were critical.
“I think this is an ill-conceived and unfair proposal,” said Ocean Pines resident Kevin Evans.
The main issue with the plan, said Evans, was the 160-foot right-of-way. Currently, Route 589 has a 100-foot right-of-way. To incorporate the additions proposed by the State Highway Association (SHA) including hiking and biking trails, lane expansion, and stormwater management, the vision plan called for an extra 60 feet. Stretching the right-of-way would mean cutting into people’s property, however.
While the state would not be taking control of property directly, any land in the right-of-way would be banned from having any type of structure, which owners argued could be considered even worse. Since the state wouldn’t be taking control of the property, it wouldn’t be paying for it either, though it would be severely limiting its acceptable use.
“I don’t think this is the right plan at the right time,” said property owner Mark Wittmyer.
Co-owner of Crabs-to-Go, a business located on the intersection of Routes 50 and 589, Wittmyer told the commission that he has followed the vision plan closely over the years as it bounced from concept to concept.
“I have been involved in every step,” Wittmyer said.
Up until recently, he didn’t have any problems with it. But, a few months ago, a map with the 160-foot right-of-way was drafted, and Wittmyer learned that, if accepted, he would find much of his land in the right-of-way and undevelopable.
“If the state wants the property, they can come buy the property,” he said.
By placing it in the right-of-way, argued Wittmyer, the state was essentially accomplishing the same thing without having to pay him a cent.
“If you guys change the rules now, it’s going to have a devastating impact on us,” he said.
Evans agreed that the additional 60 feet of right-of-way called for by the vision plan snuck up on residents.
“Not one word was ever mentioned about this right-of-way idea,” he said. “How would you feel if the government told you that you couldn’t build on your property?”
The appeal for empathy struck home, with the commission unanimously admitting that there were problems with the perceived invasion of property in the plan.
Commissioner Louise Gulyas called it “almost unconstitutional” to take lands as right-of-way without paying.
Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw referred to the process as “stealing property”, while Commissioners Virgil Shockley and Madison Bunting expressed doubt that the proposed changes needed 160 feet of right-of-way and suggested that the SHA look into making the improvements work with the current 100 feet.
“What if we went back to the drawing board?” asked Gulyas.
“We just don’t have the money to go back to the drawing board,” answered SHA Director of Planning and Preliminary Engineering Greg Slater.
Slater explained that if the plan wasn’t approved, it would need to be shelved for an unknown amount of time before it could be revisited. However, since work on Route 589 isn’t expected to begin for 15-30 years, the commission was willing to let it set on a backburner instead of approving a plan it felt was unfair.
Though the vision plan represents a major overhaul of Route 589, several residents who attended the hearing urged the commission to consider small, incremental improvements to the road in the short term.
“There could be the option of doing something on an interim basis,” said Ocean Pines resident Bob Hulburd.
“I don’t think anybody in Ocean Pines wouldn’t like to see something done,” agreed Ocean Pines resident Ray Unger.
Commissioner Judy Boggs attempted to salvage some of the plan on the grounds that Route 589 “is the only access to the outside world for the 12,000 people that live in Ocean Pines.”
Boggs feared that flatly denying the plan would further extend the amount of time before work can be done to improve the road. She motioned that the commission accept the plan conditionally and attempt to iron out details with SHA concerning the encroachment of the right-of-way and possible compensation for lands affected.
“What can we do to still give these [residents] hope?” she asked.
Though Gulyas was willing to pursue Boggs’ idea, the majority of commissioners felt that denying the plan was the best option, and Boggs’ motion died 2-5, with a subsequent motion to deny the vision plan passing 5-2.
At a meeting last year, SHA officials presented both short-term and long-term improvement possibilities. The short-term projections, which have been given a 2015 time frame, include the addition of turn lanes, additional travel lanes in select areas, and pedestrian/bicycle safety improvements.
Long-term goals, given a 2030 time frame, include a new interchange at Routes 589 and 50 and capacity improvements along the entire route.