Less than a month before the state is to sign off on construction contracts for the planned 80-foot-high Severn River bridge, Annapolis lawmakers moved a step closer to a legal battle to block the span.
But while the City Council's vote Monday night authorized spending upto $4,000 for expert witnesses who would testify in a lawsuit, no suit will be filed before a September closed council session, City Attorney Jonathan Hodgson said.
Aldermen had planned to meet yesterday to discuss strategy with Hodgson and members of an Annapolis law firm that has agreed to represent the city for free in a suit against the bridge. But the private attorneys were unable to attend, prompting council members to postponethe session until Sept. 9.
The council gave Hodgson the go-ahead to sue to stop the bridge in June, but he said he wouldn't do so before outlining specific grounds for a lawsuit and legal strategies in the closed session. He refused to discuss specifics of the case publicly.
Alderman Dean L. Johnson, noting that the state plans to sign construction contracts for the bridge by Sept. 24, urged fellow aldermen to act quickly.
Johnson, the Ward 2 Independent and a vocal leader in the fight against the high bridge, said he's encouraged by Gov. William Donald Schaefer's promise to consider the case for a lowerspan to replace the crumbling Route 450 drawbridge.
"We are serious, and we're putting our money where our mouth is," Johnson said. "The impact of this bridge, were it to be constructed, is far in excessof $4,000."
Joining Johnson in a voice vote authorizing the city to spend the $4,000 were John R. Hammond, R-Ward 1; Wayne C. Turner, R-Ward 6; Ruth C. Gray, R-Ward 4; and Ellen O. Moyer, D-Ward 8.
Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins and Alderman Carl O. Snowden, D-Ward 5, abstained.
Hopkins argued that the council should await Schaefer's final verdict on the bridge's design, while Snowden said the council had yet to review the grounds for a case or the chances of winning.
Snowden suggested that the council meet with the governor before pursuinglegal action and conduct a public hearing before spending the taxpayers' money.
"The filing of that lawsuit should be a last resort, an absolute last resort," he said.
Even as they threatened to sue, aldermen held out the hope that new sketches of a 35-foot alternativeto the high bridge, drawn by local architects, would persuade the governor to reconsider the crossing's design.
Architects Craig Purcell and Jay Schwarz presented their vision of a new bridge over the Severn -- a 35-foot-high arched draw span that won praise from most aldermen.
The architects, who drew sketches of the bridge for free last weekend at Hopkins' behest, said their alternative balances the interests of motorists, boaters, pedestrians, bicyclists, crabbers and fishermen without overwhelming the historic skyline.
Most powerboats and sailboats could pass through the 150-foot wide channel with the span closed, and it could open at regular intervals for tall sailboats to pass. The existing bridge, with a 16-foot clearance, opens sporadically for individual boats, often snarling automobile traffic.
Schwarz and Purcell, who estimated the span would cost $28 million to $32 million, specified no width but said approaches would not extend beyond the existing bridge's. They also said the roadway would be 800 feet shorter than that of the planned 80-foot-high bridge.
Aldermen voted, 6-1, to endorse the design as one alternative to the highspan. Johnson cast the dissenting vote, saying the council shouldn'tback any bridge designs before citizens review them and have their say.
"An image is a very powerful thing, but to date, there's just been no specific alternative bridge," Purcell said. "This is more positive than just saying, 'We don't like the high bridge.' Here's a very specific alternative the governor can look at and decide whether helikes it."
Two weeks ago, Schaefer told opponents of the high bridge that he would consider their case for a lower span. But he repeated earlier concerns that the state would lose $32 million in federal money unless it proceeds with the current plan.