Md. limits work on ICC as suit is heard

Judge aims to rule soon on challenge

October 13, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Jennifer Skalka | Timothy B. Wheeler and Jennifer Skalka,Sun Reporters

State highway officials have agreed to limit construction on the disputed Intercounty Connector highway through the Washington suburbs while a federal court is hearing a lawsuit challenging the $2.4 billion project, according to a court document released yesterday.

In papers filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, state and federal officials stipulated that contractors would do mainly preliminary work for the next month on the 18-mile east-west highway linking Interstate 95 in Prince George's County with Interstate 270 in Montgomery County.

The agreement heads off a court battle to block construction of the highway, which is scheduled to begin Tuesday. The State Highway Administration would be liable to pay its construction contractors $7 million to $10 million in penalties if it did not authorize work to proceed by then, the court paper says.

But environmental groups challenging the project agreed to let construction proceed after touring the corridor with highway officials to identify work that in their opinion would not cause significant harm to woods, waterways and wildlife habitat.

Work would be limited to putting in erosion controls, relocating some utility lines, clearing some brush and removing one house owned by the State Highway Administration, the agreement says. At an Oct. 1 hearing on the case, Judge Alexander Williams Jr. indicated he hoped to decide the case shortly after another hearing scheduled for Oct. 29, the agreement says. Plaintiffs agreed to let work proceed at least until Nov. 12 on the agreed-upon list of tasks.

Those challenging the project, including the Audubon Naturalist Society and Environmental Defense, could not be reached for comment.

SHA spokeswoman Valerie Burnette Edgar said in an e-mail that the state is "handling the ICC project in the most environmentally sensitive manner." She added that no more than five of the 35 to 40 homes acquired by the state along the highway route have been razed so far, and only at the request of neighbors concerned about vandalism. She also called the work agreed to as "preliminary" construction work.

The agreement was filed in court on the same day that a majority of the Montgomery County Council wrote to Gov. Martin O'Malley urging him to not to demolish any homes, buildings or "significant resources" in the path of the highway until the lawsuit is resolved.

In a three-paragraph letter, five of the council's nine members also asked that the state hold off on taking any additional homes in the path of the ICC while the federal case is pending.

"To destroy these state assets prior to resolution of the court suits could prove to be fiscally and/or environmentally irresponsible should a court send the ICC back to the drawing board," the letter said. "Equally important, destruction of these assets at this time would send a message to the community that the state is pre-judging the outcome of the court suits."

Rick Abbruzzese, an O'Malley spokesman, said the governor believes the project should move forward and that the agreement allows work to proceed while the court reaches its decision.

timothy.wheeler @baltsun.com

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