Nov. 17—OAKLAND — The Maryland Department of Natural Resources' secretary is acting as a "mini king" whose actions can't be questioned, a document filed Tuesday at Garrett County Circuit Court states.
The paper comes from petitioners that in September asked the court to review a decision DNR Secretary Josh Kurtz made in August, which would allow Garrett County officials to build a new bridge in the area of the bridge on Swallow Falls Road rather than shut down the road and work on the existing span.
DNR, joined with Garrett County commissioners, in November asked the court to dismiss the petitioners' request for judicial review.
In the latest response, the petitioners asked the court to deny the government's attempt to thwart their request for the review.
"In a nutshell, the DNR's substantive position is this: no person can challenge the DNR's omnipotent and unreviewable authority and no court has the power to review its decision, no matter how illegal, arbitrary or capricious," the latest court filing via the petitioners' attorney J. Dirk Schwenk states.
'Preserve and protect' these rivers
Kurtz's decision, which contradicted an August recommendation from the Youghiogheny River Advisory Board that said the new bridge should follow the same alignment as the current span, would allow for a new bridge, new road and new grading and stormwater easements with the river basin.
Tuesday's opposition to DNR's motion to dismiss the request for review comes from petitioners Steve Storck, who owns property in the Wild Youghiogheny River scenic corridor, the Old Growth Forest Network and Yough Farms LLC.
Included in their argument is that environmental protections should be honored for the Yough corridor, two Irreplaceable Natural Areas, historic resources, virgin hemlocks and artifacts at Swallow Falls State Park.
House Bill 784, approved by former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan in May 2022, established an INA program within the DNR to preserve the state's natural biodiversity on state-owned land managed by the department.
Additionally, adjacent to Swallow Falls State Park are "as many as a dozen old growth original hemlocks would be destroyed along with many other mature trees," the document states. "This is the same stand of old growth hemlocks which caused the founding of the Swallow Falls State Park, and the cleared area is contiguous with or within the Swallow Falls State Park. It is the last stand of old growth hemlocks in Maryland."
The Wild River portion of the Youghiogheny River "is among the most protected areas in Maryland and is the subject of both a management plan and regulations concerning the use and development that would affect the primitive qualities and characteristics of the wild river and the adjacent scenic corridor along its banks," the petitioners state. "The purpose of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act 'is to preserve and protect the natural values of these rivers, enhance their water quality, and fulfill vital conservation purposes by wise use of resources within their surrounding environment.'"
April 2 trial date set
The case is on the desk of Garrett County Circuit Court Judge Justin Gregory, who can take "however long he wants" to rule on the matter, a representative of his office said Thursday.
Gregory was appointed to his position by Hogan in October 2022.
"Gregory is a solo practitioner at J. Gregory Law Firm, L.C.," a Cumberland Times-News article at that time stated. "He is a general practitioner and has provided a broad range of services to both Maryland and West Virginia residents for nearly a decade. He has practiced in both circuit and district courts and has handled cases from traffic citations to capital offenses."
In addition to handling residential and real estate closings, estate planning and all matters of civil litigation, Gregory has also tried felony cases before a jury and has also handled cases involving attempted murder, robbery and kidnapping, the article stated.
"He also serves as the court auditor for the Circuit Court for Garrett County, is chairman of the Garrett County Property Review Board and president of the Garrett County Bar Association," it stated.
A trial date of April 2 has been scheduled for the case, unless Gregory rules in favor of DNR and the county and decides to dismiss the petitioners' request for judicial review before that date.
Mel Brooks and Tom Petty
The petitioners say the court has inherent power to review administrative decisions.
They call DNR's motion to dismiss their request for review "a wild overreach" that should be denied.
"According to the DNR, the secretary is a mini King who can ignore the legislature's requirement that he protect the Yough Corridor; can ignore the designation of this as an Irreplaceable Natural Area; and can ignore his department's own regulations that prohibit roads, new bridges and clearing of trees," the petitioners' filing states.
"The secretary can do what he wants, when he wants and however he wants, no matter how improper or arbitrary," it states as DNR's position. "Citizens and circuit court judges have no place asking impertinent questions. We should sit down and be quiet."
In the document, the description is listed under the heading "It's Good To Be King," and references the Mel Brooks film "History of the World, Part 1," and the song "It's Good To Be King" by Tom Petty.
As a cultural reference, the song "indicates being insulated from consequence by being in power," the document states.
In the song, Petty sings, "It's good to be king and have your own way, get a feeling of peace at the end of the day."
Teresa McMinn is a reporter for the Cumberland Times-News. She can be reached at 304-639-2371 or email@example.com.