Citizens sue to halt bridge project An injunction is to be sought to stop construction work on replacement Severn span.

September 12, 1991|By Kelly Gilbert and Monica Norton | Kelly Gilbert and Monica Norton,Evening Sun Staff

A director of a citizens' group that has filed a federal suit to block the controversial replacement of the Severn River Bridge says plaintiffs will seek an emergency injunction to stop work on the project.

After Citizens for the Scenic Severn River Bridge Inc. filed suit yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Jessica Hay, a director, said her group will ask Judge Joseph C. Howard for an emergency injunction as soon as the defendants are served with copies of the suit.

"They've already ruined Jonas Green Park," Hay said. "We want to preserve the status quo until a judge rules on [the project's legality]."

Hay said work crews already have begun to move utilities in the park and adjoining swamp and parked heavy equipment, Jersey barriers and utility piping "right up against the wetlands."

She said her group is "monitoring the site daily."

"The bottom line is, we're trying to stop the road-driven development in this area," Hay said.

In the suit filed yesterday by Thomas McCarthy Jr., an Annapolis lawyer, the group seeks to block state plans and federal funding for the controversial Severn River replacement bridge on Md. 450 at the Naval Academy.

The suit charges state and federal officials with drafting those plans and designing the proposed new bridge in secret, and with violating a variety of federal laws governing coastal zone management, environmental considerations, funding and public hearings.

The suit claims that the defendants did not prepare required environmental-impact statements for the project in violation of federal law.

It also alleges that the proposed 80-foot-high bridge would destroy both the aesthetics of the Annapolis historic district and the surrounding environment, including the adjacent Jonas Green Park and Pendennis Shrub Swamp, which is rife with wildlife.

The suit requests preliminary and permanent injunctions against federal funding and state construction of the unpopular bridge, which would replace the aging, low drawbridge that spans the river beside the Naval Academy.

The plaintiffs' suit did not request a restraining order, which could have resulted in an immediate court hearing on their demand for full public participation and "adequate" consideration of alternatives to the proposed high span.

Defendants in the suit are O. James Lighthizer, the state transportation secretary; Hal Kassoff, state highway administrator; Samuel K. Skinner, U.S. transportation secretary; and Thomas D. Larson,the federal highway administrator.

The suit alleges that state highway officials presented three "low-level draw span alternatives" to the public as early as 1983, four years after they determined that the old bridge, with its historic steel arched spans, should be replaced.

The suit says that state officials secretly concocted plans to design and build the higher span, and decided privately to build a much higher, fixed-road bridge without informing the public.

The suit contends that the current plan violates several federal statutes: the Aid Highway Act, the Transportation Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act and the National Historic Preservation Act and regulations that put those laws into effect.

Moreover, the cost of building the new high span is projected to be$42.5 million, far more than two alternatives that the citizens' group has proposed.

One of the citizens' proposals calls for renovating the current bridge at a cost of $16 million, with minimum damage to the river bottom. The other calls for a new bridge about the same height and length as the current one, but wider. That would cost an estimated $26.4 million.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who recently endorsed the 80-foot-high span, has said he does not want to delay construction because the state would lose $32 million in federal money for the project.

Hay challenged that contention.

"The information we have from the Federal Highway Administration is that the money comes from a discretionary bridge fund," she said. "We're hoping that the state will lose the money now [because of the lawsuit], but from what we've been told, there is no reason in the world that they can't get other discretionary money from the FHA later."

In a related action, the Annapolis City Council voted Monday to authorize the city to file a separate federal lawsuit to block the new bridge. That suit is expected to be filed by next week, but some Annapolis politicians expressed reservations about it.

"I would have taken a step back," said former Mayor Roger "Pip" Moyer. "I don't believe it's necessary to sue the state, and I certainly don't think it will sit well with the state powers.

"I find the governor to be a fair and decent man. I don't think he would punish the city," Moyer said.

But Alderman Carl O. Snowden, who voted in favor of the city's suit, said one of his major concerns was the possibility of repercussions fromthe state.

"I'm not at all confident the city will be successful in winning the case," Snowden said. "If successful, even temporarily, it could aggravate relations and create a problem between the city and the state. It's politically naive to say it won't hurt the city-state relationship."

Snowden said that he was convinced by a community activist that there were merits to filing suit.

"A lot of people took the time to get involved," Snowden said. "It's a people's issue. It's important they have a forum."

Moyer said the time for getting involved was when the state began accepting designs for the bridge.

"I don't think we need an 80-foot bridge," Moyer said. "But the state has made up its mind. The time to speak up against the bridge would have been three or four years ago, not now when it's a fait accompli."

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