OXFORD -- A prolonged battle over the legality of a small bridge returns to court today, six years after plans to develop a privately owned island sparked a bitter dispute among wealthy waterfront landowners here.
The tiny bridge leads from the Talbot County mainland to Sol's Island, a five-acre wooded tract surrounded by Boone Creek, near the Choptank River.
But the debate over the wooden bridge has led to a complicated and expensive law suit alleging, among other claims, that high officials secretly plotted to allow the bridge to be built. Opponents also say the bridge hinders navigation and lowers property values.
Amid countercharges that bridge opponents see conspiracy where there is only circumstance, the property-rights tiff worked its way through the Talbot County Circuit Court, the Maryland Court of Appeals and the county Board of Appeals before returning to the Circuit Court where it began.
The suit against the bridge owners and county officials has generated so much paperwork that the presiding judge refers to court pleadings in terms of pounds and inches.
Kent County Circuit Court Judge J. Frederick Price, who was assigned the case after Talbot judges recused themselves, is expected to rule on a handful of pre-trial motions today in Easton.
The case could go before a jury in September.
The suit asks that the $126,000 bridge be torn down and that plaintiffs be awarded more than $11 million in compensation and damages.
The 240-feet-long bridge was erected in 1988 by Ernest J. and Suzanne H. Litty Jr., after the couple bought the island in 1986 and decided to build a house there.
The Littys now live full time on the island.
Battle lines were first drawn in 1986 when Boone Creek residents learned that the U.S. Coast Guard had issued a permit for the bridge. Federal law gives the Coast Guard authority over navigable waters.
William B. Becker, who lives close to the mainland bridge approach, said early efforts to resolve concerns about the proposed structure failed.
Dozens of area residents formed the Boone Creek Association and gave money to fight the bridge in court.
Among those opposing the bridge are Mr. Becker, a retired aviation lawyer; L. Garry and Barbara M. Coit, two former Central Intelligence Agency officials; Philip Rizik, a member of the family that owns an upscale Washington women's clothing store; and Chick Lang, the former general manager of Pimlico Racetrack in Baltimore.
Mr. Litty is an influential Anne Arundel County developer. His wife, Suzanne, is a member of the well-known Hanks family of Oxford.
In many respects, the feud illustrates how Eastern Shore residents view attempts to control development.
"My family has been here for generations and generations and it just makes me mad that these people come in here and try tell us what we can do," said Mrs. Litty.
Homeowners along the Boone Creek shoreline claim the bridge was built before proper permits were obtained. They also suggested that friends in high office helped the Littys.
In court documents, Mr. Litty said he and Maryland Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer are friends and that he once took Natural Resources Secretary Torrey Brown goose hunting on Sol's Island.
Both state agencies were called in to determine if the bridge violated state law. Both concluded that the structure was permitted.
"There is no doubt that the plaintiffs' exaggerated claims are more emotional than substantive," said David R. Thompson, one of two lawyers representing the Littys.
But it was this kind of political connection, as well as charges that local officials ignored county zoning law, that helped fuel the conspiracy theories enveloping the legal case.
"I guess it is a small example of the reason for distrust of government in America today," said Mr. Coit.
Boone Creek homeowners also allege the bridge was built illegally after Daniel R. Cowee, Talbot County's planning officer, and James M. Slay, the county's attorney, gave the Littys' contractor a "secret go-ahead" to begin work on the structure without formal county approval.
Lawyers for the Littys say the county could not prevent the bridge from being built at the time because the local government had no authority.
After an appeals board later ruled that bridges were not excluded from local zoning ordinances, the Talbot County Council passed legislation in 1991 that grandfathered the county's more than 20 private bridges -- including the Sol's Island bridge -- as permitted structures.
Homeowners claim their property values have fallen because the wooden structure blocks the primary navigation channel to the other side of the shallow creek.
Waterfront property values often depend upon water depth and the availability of recreational boating. The deeper the water, the more expensive the land.
The timber-and-plank bridge has less than a 5-foot clearance at mean high water, making passage for most boats impossible.
Longtime local residents said the island, a popular hunting spot for years, actually was linked to the nearby shore until a hurricane in the early 1950s washed away the narrow strip of connecting land.