State plans to widen Garrett highway trouble residents

State officials are considering 3 road proposals that would destroy homes or divide farms - and rejecting a locally developed option

November 13, 2005|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,SUN REPORTER

GRANTSVILLE -- David Pope has a theory about why state planning officials have rejected his favored route for widening the two-lane highway that runs a few hundred feet from his modest home in Maryland's westernmost county.

Pope thinks local residents made the highway planners mad when they pointed out a potential path for a new, four-lane version of U.S. 219 that would avoid taking homes or cutting through farms.

"They don't want to hear that a bunch of us dummies figured out how to build a road without hurting anybody," said Pope, 58, who works for a heavy-equipment company. "The state don't want to accept it because a bunch of college-educated people couldn't figure it out."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Sunday's editions incorrectly described Garrett County as Maryland's largest and least populous county. In fact, Frederick is the largest in terms of land mass, while Kent is the smallest in terms of population, according to the state Department of Business and Economic Development.
The Sun regrets the errors.

The proposed widening of the stretch of U.S. 219 north of Interstate 68 is a project little known outside Garrett, Maryland's largest and least populated county. The plan has been on the books for decades but has become a point of contention as Maryland and Pennsylvania move closer to choosing a route.

State Highway Administration officials say the route Pope and others favor won't work, for several reasons. The state has narrowed its choices to three alternatives - each with its own environmental, engineering and cost considerations.

Each would require the condemnation of private properties through eminent domain. Highway officials say hearings on the proposals are almost a year off, and that construction would not begin until after 2010.

But if that happens, some residents might lose their homes. Some historic farms could be split in two. And Rosie Cupler could lose the atmosphere of serenity that surrounds her home and business, the Herb Farm.

To get there, a visitor turns off the existing U.S. 219 and takes a long, winding driveway through dense woods before emerging at a clearing facing a rolling field.

Cupler says her customers like escaping the pace of modern life. "They come because it feels good to come here," she said. The 55-year-old widow fears she could lose that peaceful isolation if officials decide to run the highway though her 95-acre property not far from the Mason-Dixon Line.

"It would devastate it. It would ruin the property," said Cupler, who sells nutritional supplements and offers massage therapy out of a two-century-old barn.

Her dismay is shared by some nearby Pennsylvania residents.

Corey Yoder, 20, worries that the highway could cut off the half of his family's farm in Salisbury, Pa., from its roughly 160 acres across the state line. He's also concerned that one route could level many maple trees used to make the syrup his family sells at its store on the farm.

"It would destroy our way of living," said Yoder.

The 219 controversy is in some ways a rural version of the struggle going on between the highway administration and suburban Washington residents over plans to condemn their homes to make way for the proposed Intercounty Connector.

In Montgomery County, some homeowners are digging in their heels, refusing to deal with state officials and threatening to drag the process through the courts.

In Garrett, residents chose a less confrontational strategy. They tried working with the state and came up with their own route, which would run along a heavily timbered ridge and avoid occupied homes and farmland.

One leader of the effort, construction company owner Dick McKenzie, borrowed a helicopter and took aerial video to show officials the advantages of the proposal.

It was a do-it-yourself approach in keeping with the temperament of Garrett - a ruggedly mountainous county where Democrats are scarce and bears are plentiful.

"We wanted to work with, not work against," said Marsha McKenzie, Dick McKenzie's wife, who worries that the highway will run through her backyard. "We are polite up here."

When the Route 219 Citizens Impact Group proposed the "Ridge Route" this year, Maryland highway officials agreed to study it. Recently the highway planners said the route wasn't viable.

Highway administration spokesman Dave Buck said it would cost $100 million more to build than any of the three alternatives on the table. It also posed more environmental problems.

And Buck said the residents' proposal had run into objections from Pennsylvania officials, who are taking the lead in planning because most of the road to be widened lies in that state.

Sid Markowitz, a leading proponent of the Ridge Route, said highway officials based their conclusions on a perfunctory study rather than a formal analysis. He questions the state's conclusions and wonders whether Maryland officials have given in to Pennsylvania at the expense of their own constituents.

"Pennsylvania doesn't care what happens to Maryland people," said Markowitz, whose 295-acre farm lies in the path of one possible route.

Markowitz stressed that his group did not oppose widening the highway. "What we're against is building a highway that changes the environment for everyone that lives out there."

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