The Charles County Board of Commissioners is taking three White Plains Village property owners to court in an effort to obtain access to a county-owned parcel of land that has been at the center of a year-long battle between neighborhood residents and the county.
The county is petitioning the court to grant an easement along a short strip of land at the northeast corner of residential property owned by Robert Mills and his daughter, Melissa, that it claims provides the only practical access from the end of Deacon Road to a 34-acre parcel of land owned by the county.
The county leased a house on the parcel to the Maryland Department of Human Services in late 2017 for use as a foster care facility, but the county has been unable to complete upgrades to the building or make improvements to the surrounding grounds and access road because of a dispute over whether the county has permission to cross the Mills’ land to get to it.
Title records show that road easements have been recorded on either side of the approximately 25-foot-wide strip, but none have ever been recorded for the strip itself.
To further complicate matters, the strip in dispute is also where the driveways for John and Robin Pompell and Daniel and Malyoris Reyes all come together. The Pompells and the Reyeses are also named as defendants in the county’s suit.
Last August, residents along Deacon Road were surprised when county contractor vehicles showed up unannounced to pave the road to the house, including the portion of the road that runs through the contended strip of land on the Mills’ property.
A group of eight to 10 residents reacted by blockading the path to the house with skid loaders and accused the contractors of trespassing. Charles County Sheriff’s Office deputies had to be called in to clear the blockade and allow the contractors to leave.
In the year since the original standoff, county personnel have not been able to conduct needed maintenance on the property. An affidavit included with the county’s court filing says that grass and shrubs around the house have become overgrown, algae was forming on the outside walls, and a leaking chimney is in need of permanent repair.
Residents argue that the county does not own the right of way to cross from Deacon Street to the parcel. The county is arguing that the presumption of a right of way already exists because of the way the land was subdivided over 125 years ago.
Until the late 19th century, all of the parcels in question had been part of a single large plantation owned by Richard H. Willett, after which Willett Crossing — the only road in and out of the neighborhood — is named. When Willett divided the land among his children in 1893, the county’s argument goes, it would be reasonable to assume that he would have wanted his children to be able to access those properties by road.
Many residents’ concerns extend beyond the right-of-way issue to the foster care program planned for the county-owned house. The program was the subject of two contentious community meetings, in August and November of last year, at which residents expressed concerns about the effect of the program on community safety and property values.
The county’s petition, filed on July 19, says that “[a]ttempts to resolve this matter outside of court have not been successful.” Residents argue that the county has made no such overtures following the last of the two community meetings.
“From that night on, there was never another word uttered from the county,” said Roland Zeigler, a White Plains Village resident who opposes the plan to use Deacon Road to gain access to the county property.
The Millses confirmed that they have not heard from the county either.
“The issue in a nutshell is that we’re in a residential area,” Zeigler said. “We want [a] limited amount of traffic through that area ... but now they’re going to open it up into a public access, which means anybody can come there, and we’re going to be in a position where we have to put up with the traffic.”
Zeigler added that residents are concerned about the accident risk to the children that regularly play on Deacon Road.
The Charles County Department of Social Services, which will operate the foster care program, plans to use the county-owned house to allow children who are in foster care to meet with their biological and adoptive parents in a safe, supervised, home-like environment.
At the house, parents and youth in foster care will be able to practice basic living skills such as budgeting for food and cooking, general home maintenance and care, socialization skills and doing laundry.
The department has said that it also plans to use the house for staff and board meetings as well as for picnics and fundraising events.
The social services department has stated that the house will not be used for overnight visits or as a halfway house or residential treatment facility. An average of two families a day are expected to use the facility.
The facility has been equipped with interior and exterior security cameras, and the interior is being painted and furnished using state funds as well as donations from community businesses.
The county investigated the feasibility of constructing an alternate access road from Demarr Road through the other side of the property that would bypass the neighborhood altogether, but concluded that it would cost between $720,000 and $887,000 depending on the type of road surface, plus an additional $250,000 to $300,000 for associated stormwater management infrastructure. Furthermore, the permitting and approval process for the alternate road would take at least a year to complete.
Tony Wright, a resident of White Plains Village, said that for many years a dirt driveway ran along the route of the alternate access road and owners used it to access the property. A previous owner had intended to pave the trail, but he died before he could do so, Wright said.
“It’s not that the road was abandoned, he died before he could fix it,” Wright said. “[The county] has tried to deny that that [alternate road] existed.”
The Mills told the Maryland Independent that they intend to fight the county’s easement petition in court.
A county official familiar with the case told the Maryland Independent that the county would willingly participate in mediation to resolve the dispute if ordered by the court.
A hearing date for the case has not been scheduled as of press time.
Recently, a barrier was erected in front of the portion of dirt road that runs through the disputed strip with signs warning that the land is private property.