Two White Plains Village households are arguing that the Charles County government took too long to claim that it has a right to traverse private property in order to gain access to a parcel of county-owned land at the end of Deacon Road.
In three recent filings in Charles County Circuit Court, Robert Mills, his daughter Melissa, and John and Robin Pompell assert that the county’s claim that it is entitled to an easement along a short strip of land at the northeast corner of the Mills’ residential property should be barred under the legal principle of laches, which means that the county had failed to make its case for the easement in a timely manner.
The residents also “deny that there has been an attempt to resolve this matter outside of Court,” as the county claimed in its original petition, which it filed in July.
The Mills and Pompells also denied the county’s argument that the presumption of a right of way already exists because, when the land surrounding the disputed strip was subdivided in the late 19th century and transferred to the owner’s children, the owner would have wanted his children to be able to access those properties by road.
In seeking the easement, the county pointed out that residents of a house on the county-owned land had “used the same access via Deacon Road” and that the access had been “historically used by all prior owners of the property now owned by the County.”
Title records show that road easements have been recorded on either side of the approximately 25-foot-wide strip on the Mills property, but none have ever been recorded for the strip itself.
To further complicate matters, the disputed strip is also where the Pompells’ driveway connects to Deacon Road, and along which residents of a third property must cross to gain access to their home.
The county included the owners of that third property, Daniel and Malyoris Reyes, in its lawsuit as well because it believes they joined other neighborhood residents in blocking the county’s access to the property last summer. As of press time, the Reyes’ have not responded to the county’s petition along with their neighbors.
In bringing the suit against the residents in July, the county argued that the strip of land across the Mills’ land provides the only practical access from Deacon Road to a house that the county has leased to the Maryland Department of Human Services for use as a foster care facility.
Residents have countered that the county could gain access from the other side of the property by extending Salt Barn Road, which runs from Demarr Road to edge of the property. At a public meeting with White Plains Village residents in November, county officials said that constructing such an extension could cost close to a million dollars, if not more.
“Charles County is not entitled to an easement by necessity for the simple reason that they already have access to their property over an old easement that runs off of Demarr Road,” Thomas McManus, the attorney representing the Mills and Pompells in the suit, said in a telephone interview on Friday. “As a result, the county shouldn’t have to try to establish access through property that is clearly within the boundaries of [the property of] Melissa and Robert Mills when they have a suitable alternative access to their land off Demarr.”
The Charles County Attorney’s Office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
The Charles County Department of Social Services seeks to use the house on the county’s parcel as a place to allow children who are in foster care to meet with their biological and adoptive parents in a safe, supervised, home-like environment. The department would also use the house for staff and board meetings, picnics and fundraising events.
At the November meeting, as well as at an earlier meeting last August, White Plains Village residents expressed concern that the foster children or their parents could pose a safety risk to the residents, that traffic through the neighborhood would increase, and that the facility would hurt their property values.
County social services director Therese Wolf has said that at any one time, an average of 82 foster children are enrolled in the county’s child welfare program and only a fraction of them would be far enough along to be eligible for conducting visitations in home settings.
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 disputed 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. A date for a hearing or trial has not yet been scheduled.