Citizens Group To File Suit To Abandon Bridge Project

September 11, 1991|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff writer

A citizens group that has fought for six months to stop constructionof the planned 80-foot-high replacement for the old Severn River drawbridge takes its case to federal court today.

In a 23-page lawsuit to be filed in federal District Court in Baltimore this morning, the group, Citizens for the Scenic Severn River Bridge Inc., seeks to force the state to abandon the project and begin the bridge design process anew.

The suit contends that highway planners did not conduct adequate required public hearings or reviews of the bridge's potential impact on the environment, traffic or the city's historic district.

The high bridge, the suit claims, would cause "substantial and irreparable" harm to the plaintiffs -- the citizens group and two of its members.

Named as defendants are Samuel K. Skinner, the U.S. transportation secretary; Thomas D. Larson, administrator for the Federal HighwayAdministration; O. James Lighthizer, state transportation secretary,and Hal Kassoff, administrator for the State Highway Administration.

Thomas McCarthy Jr., an Annapolis attorney and a leader in the fight for a lower span, said he was confident the group would prevail in court.

"It doesn't matter how many experts say this is the best bridge," he said. "If the people don't want it, it shouldn't be built."

The suit argues that highway planners violated the National Environmental Policy Act, a federal law requiring environmental impact studies for all federal projects "significantly affecting the quality of the human environment."

The group, which contends that the bridge would harm the river and environmentally sensitive wetlands, disputes state officials' conclusion that the bridge would have "no significant environmental impacts." Federal officials granted a waiver of the impact statement based on that conclusion.

In addition, federallaw requires highway planners to consider "appropriate alternatives"if a project would endanger the environment, and the suit asserts that state officials should have done so.

In other key arguments, the suit claims:

* State officials violated state and federal law bywaiving review of the project by the Maryland Critical Areas Commission. The group disputes the state's contention that the project didn't need to meet the state's critical area's law because it was in its "final stages" before the stiff law took effect in 1988.

* Highwayplanners violated the federal Transportation Act, designed to protect public park or recreational land, wildlife habitat, historic sites and areas deemed of "national, state or local significance." Such lands cannot be used for federal projects unless no "prudent and feasible alternative" exists.

The high bridge would "irreparably damage" the Severn River, Jonas Green Park, the Scenic Overlook, the Naval Academy and the colonial capital's historic district, the suit argues.

* State officials failed to conduct public hearings required by federal and state law. Maryland's SHA conducted hearings on bridge alternatives in 1983 and 1984. No hearings, however, were scheduled on a 65-foot-high bridge recommended after a design competition or on the final 80-foot bridge design, unveiled in early 1990, the suit says.

State officials have said they conducted all necessary reviews and that the project complies with all state and federal laws, the suit says.

Lighthizer and Kassoff could not be reached for comment yesterday. Thomas Jasien, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, said federal officials would not comment on the suit before reviewing it.

The anti-bridge group, which has gathered more than 7,000signatures on a petition against the high span, mounted its legal challenge a day after the Annapolis City Council voted to go to federalcourt to try to block construction of the high bridge.

The 7-2 council vote authorized the city to spend up to $20,000 on the legal battle. Two private Annapolis attorneys, Bryson F. Popham and Richard T. Colaresi, have agreed to represent the city at no cost. The attorneys said the suit would be filed by early next week.

Bridge opponents decided to turn to the courts after Gov. William Donald Schaefer announced late last month that the state would proceed with plans to build the high crossing. The governor warned that Maryland would lose $32 million in federal funds for the project unless it acted now.

If the state scrapped plans for the high bridge and consider another one to replace the decaying Route 450 drawbridge, Maryland could waita decade or more for new federal money, Schaefer said.

The state plans to sign off on contracts to build the bridge by November, and construction is scheduled to begin next year.

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