Trail grant is in peril

Hiker-biker funds depend on resolving land-rights dispute

Nearly $1 million at stake

Owens to consider alternative to tract in MeyerStation area

June 13, 2001|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County stands to lose nearly $1 million if it doesn't quickly resolve a deed dispute involving land in an Odenton nature preserve slated for hiker-biker trails - property the county has claimed it has the right to take.

Both the county and Russell "Buz" Meyer - whose family owns MeyerStation, a 135-acre tract that has wildlife habitat and nature trails - claim they hold the deed to the nearly two miles of abandoned rail bed that cuts through Meyer's nature preserve.

The county wants to use the rail bed area for part of a proposed 14-mile link between Odenton and the Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis trail in Prince George's County. But after touring the Meyer family property last week, County Executive Janet S. Owens has agreed to review alternate locations.

If the issue isn't resolved before the state Department of Transportation awards its grants June 20, the county could lose $968,428 in grant funds it had applied for to construct the trail.

"Sometimes there are things more important than money, and that's to do it the right way," said Dennis Callahan, county recreation and parks director.

"Hopefully, the state will realize what we're trying to do, and we will receive that allocation to work on other parts of the trail," Callahan said.

The money would come from the state's allotting federal dollars from the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, or TEA-21, which supports transportation projects.

The county would match the grant to reach the $1.9 million necessary for the proposed 3.5-mile phase of the project, which is scheduled to be constructed in March 2003.

Meyer's deed stipulates that the railroad tracks would revert to the family's possession if the tracks were not used, but the county maintains it also holds a deed to that land and wants to use it for the trail.

Anne Arundel County spokesman Matt Diehl said the county doesn't want to place a financial burden on the Meyer family, which has opened its land to 4-H clubs, the Audubon Society and schools over the past 30 years. But there is a legitimate argument about who has the rights to the land, he said.

"After [last week's] meeting, the county executive certainly came away with a greater understanding and appreciation for what Mr. Meyer and his family have done with that land and what it means to them, and also what it means to the community," Diehl said.

The county sued the Meyer family in May, claiming ownership to the land, and Callahan said yesterday that the county will pursue the lawsuit. County officials will not go into court in an adversarial manner, he said, but to "once and for all clear up questions on right of way."

"We're backing off from where we were two weeks ago," Callahan said. "We feel that we bought the right to that railroad track, and we understand how reasonable people may disagree. We need a third person to decide that issue."

The county will consider the alternative that Meyer has proposed - an abandoned Pennsylvania Railroad spur owned by Conrail - as well as any other viable routes.

"A bypass route would make more sense, and it would be a win-win situation for everyone involved," Meyer said.

A trail running through the property would also threaten to close the shooting range on the property where Meyer, a certified firearms instructor, teaches a Department of Natural Resources hunter safety course.

M. Willson Offutt IV, Meyer's attorney, said yesterday he has not talked to Owens about the issue and although other county officials have suggested some flexibility on the matter, "so far that has been nothing but words."

"If we get more than words, I would be very pleasantly surprised," he said.

County Councilman Bill D. Burlison, an Odenton Democrat, said he's been the recipient of Meyer's "very excellent lobbying" - his office has received "scores and scores" of letters, e-mails and phone calls expressing support for the family.

Burlison said he is not advocating the position of either side and hopes the issue will reach a conclusion that satisfies both parties.

"I'm in favor of the hiker-biker trail," he said. "I'm also in favor of accommodating property owners, and in this instance, there's a very substantial conflict."

Meyer said the county has not offered to buy his property, adding that he would not accept an offer because it would destroy his nature preserve.

He said he was somewhat optimistic about the future of his land after meeting with Owens.

"Hey, at least it looks like we may have hope," he said.

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