SANDY SPRING, Md. (WUSA9) -- Tears and harsh accusations of racism marked a hearing held by Maryland's Legislative Black Caucus Wednesday evening, as legislators tried to get to the bottom of claims that African American property rights have been abused by the actions of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission for more than 7 years.
"They shut me down," cried 72-year-old William Rounds as he described his attempts to get an address for land he owns in an African American enclave in Sandy Spring on an access known as the Farm Road. "They told me I couldn't sell my property. I couldn't build on my property. And now I'm paying somebody else to live on their property."
"I've got nothing," he added as family members comforted him.
Rounds had hoped to build on, and retire to, land that has been in his family for more than a century. But M-NCPPC officials refuse to issue Rounds an address for his property saying he and other families cannot prove they have legal right to use Farm Road despite its existence in records dating back to the 1800's.
"All things lead in the direction of the denial of civil rights," said Vernon Ricks of Montgomery County's chapter of the NAACP.
Thursday, Montgomery County Planning Board Chairperson Francoise Carrier issued a statement saying: ""Race has played no role in our actions in this case. We have had to be careful to make sure we don't create property interests for some that work to the harm of others. This has absolutely nothing to do with the race of the people involved."
The hearing was held in the wake of reporting by WUSA9 on a series of allegations against developers and officials including:
- Accusations that developers used misleading documents to eliminate Farm Road from official records in order to get development approval for a high-end subdivision. African American landowners claim they've been cheated out of access rights to their own land as a result.
- Allegations that Maryland's Attorney General Doug Gansler's office shut down an investigation into the matter before anyone was held accountable.
- Accusations that Planning officials have actively worked against landowners fighting to get access back on a section of road that was not wiped out by the development for at least 7 years.
All the agencies and officials involved strongly deny the allegations.
Farm Road would connect the landowners to the nearest public right -of-way which is Brooke Road.
Francoise Carrier said her agency's hands have been tied. "To get from almost all of these properties to Brooke Road, you have to cross other people's property. And we don't have the right to say you can do that."
Legislators asked how that can be true if landowners have been using Farm Road for more than 100 years. Others questioned why some neighbors continue to have legal access to Farm Road when others don't have access. In all, Farm Road appears in the deeds of at least 20 properties.
But Carrier said the recent submission of at least 13 affidavits from landowners attesting to the existence of the road, and neighbors' rights to use it have opened the door to a resolution soon.
"We think we are extremely close," Carrier said.
She told legislators the M-NCPPC board could begin considering a plan for issuing addresses as early as mid-July.
Notably absent at the hearing was Attorney General Doug Gansler. He sent a written statement saying, WUSA9 reports that his agency shut down an investigation into alleged wrongdoing by developers are false. Gansler said his agency has never been asked to investigate the Farm Road matter.
WUSA9 has reported the accounts of former Montgomery County Legislative Aide Adrienne Gude and SaveSandySpring.org founder Steve Kanstoroom who say they met repeatedly with three top assistant prosecutors to hand over evidence of alleged wrongdoing during a months-long active investigation. Former Montgomery County Inspector General Tom Dagley says he reviewed the evidence. Dagley claims the Attorney General's office shut down the investigation for partisan political reasons.
Gude filed two complaints alleging wrongdoing by licensed professionals with Maryland's Department of Lab or Licensing and Regulation, which is advised by assistant attorney general Susan Cherry. No action was taken against the accused professionals.
Two former members of Maryland's Board of Surveyors told legislators Wednesday that the disciplinary system overseeing licensed professionals is broken.
"If this issue were submitted to the Surveyors Board for disciplinary action or investigation, I as a former member, would give it maybe a 1% chance of success," testified Joel Linenger.
Also testifying at the hearing was Richard Hall, Maryland's Secretary of Planning. Hall has been accused by Montgomery County Council Member Marc Elrich of being influenced by M-NCPPC's General Counsel Adrian Gardner to reverse a correction to state records that would have restored Farm Road to state tax maps and helped landowners.
Hall says the accusation is false. He testified Wednesday that he ordered a correction to state tax maps reversed because his agency might be exposed to litigation. "If we were to go ahead tonight and change the map I think we would put the agency at risk because we would be doing that knowing that there's active litigation on that very issue."
Hall admitted the current tax map does not appear to accurately depict the Farm Road area.
Elrich also testified saying,"If the people are right and the government is wrong, then it is not incumbent on the government to figure out how to win a lawsuit when you're wrong."
M-NCPPC lawyer Gardner has previously denied using any inappropriate influence, saying he only contacted Hall to advise him that there were lawsuits pending on Farm Road access.
Representatives of the Montgomery County Civic Federation called for reform and oversight of the M-NCPPC.
"No one is overseeing -- monitoring - the activities of this organization. No one. Not at the county. Not at the state," said one representative who called the Farm Road case symptomatic of longstanding problems at M-NCPPC.
Thursday, the M-NCPPC announced the appointment of Douglas M. Bregman as an independent counsel to investigate allegations that approval of the Dellabrooke subdivision near Farm Road relied on improper documents and faulty information.
"The community and our stakeholders expect us to clear the air," said Carrier in a press release. "Our Board needs to understand the facts once and for all."
According to the press release, Bregman is a veteran attorney based in Bethesda who specializes in complex real estate disputes and is frequently named by Washingtonian Magazine as one of the area's "Top Lawyers." He has done extensive work in conjunction with internal investigations.
Bregman is currently a member of the Maryland Appellate Judicial Nominating Commission, Treasurer of the Maryland Client Protection Fund, and member of the Court of Appeals Public Trust and Confidence Committee. He is an Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center and is a member of the Adjunct Faculty at Columbia Law School.
Bregman will report directly to the Board.