Deal clears way for bypass

Group sued, saying black homes targeted in north Salisbury

March 22, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY -- Residents of one of Salisbury's oldest African-American communities joined state and federal highway officials yesterday to complete an agreement that ends a federal court challenge and clears the way for construction of the final leg of state projects aimed at speeding traffic to Eastern Shore beaches.

Eight years after they first learned of a planned U.S. 50 bypass through their neighborhood, residents of the Jersey Heights neighborhood say they have broken a pattern of discrimination that began more than a half-century ago.

Yesterday, they praised the agreement, noting it was the first time they've been allowed at the negotiating table.

"This is really all we ever really wanted -- to sit down at the table and negotiate," said Charles K. Whittington, president of the citizen group that enlisted the American Civil Liberties Union in the fight against the $64 million project. "We wanted people to know the neighborhood had put up with enough."

The almost five-mile bypass will mean traveling in a high-speed arc north of Salisbury, eventually linking to the existing highway near the Arthur W. Perdue Stadium, just east of town.

In addition to alleviating a bottleneck of traffic and congestion for tourists and other drivers of an estimated 9,000 vehicles a day, the bypass will make life easier for Salisbury residents who must contend with bumper-to-bumper traffic, particularly during the summer. State Highway Administration planners say the project will be built in four parts and finished by April 2003.

Whittington says black neighborhoods in north Salisbury have been unfairly targeted since highway construction began on U.S. 13, the Lower Shore's north-south artery, in the 1920s and 1930s.

He says the pattern was continued in the 1950s when highway construction cut a four-lane swath through Salisbury, isolating neighborhoods from the downtown business district and displacing African-American families.

"Common ground, for a time, was elusive," said Parker F. Williams, who heads the Maryland highway agency. "It's our job to balance the competing needs of transportation with the communities that are affected."

With help from the ACLU, Jersey Heights residents filed administrative complaints in 1994 with state and federal highway authorities, charging that state officials had failed to adequately notify residents when the long-delayed highway project was designed more than 20 years ago.

Arguing that state and federal authorities had violated the National Environmental Policy Act, residents filed suit in federal court in 1997.

"This agreement is going to make things so much easier for other communities in similar circumstances," said Steven P. Hollman, a Baltimore attorney who led the court case. "The notification requirements have been strengthened, and the definition of proximity has been broadened. Highway planners, in short, will be more sensitive to neighborhoods."

Under terms of the settlement, valued at about $1 million, the state agreed not to widen the highway, bringing it closer to Jersey Heights, for 25 years. Four homes closest to the highway will be purchased by the state if their owners choose. About 15 to 20 houses in the path of the highway have been purchased by the state.

In addition, the neighborhood will get $175,000 for community improvements, including extensive landscaping and drainage projects on local roads. The state also will contribute $25,000 toward legal expenses.

"I'm thankful we were able to reach this point," Whittington said. "Under the circumstances, I think we've reached the best deal, if I can use that term, humanly possible."

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