Jan. 26—OAKLAND — Litigation over the Swallow Falls Road bridge replacement plan was discussed at the Youghiogheny Scenic and Wild River Advisory Board meeting Thursday.
Steve Storck, who owns property in the Wild Yough corridor, provided an update on a hearing held earlier this month regarding a petition for judicial review that he, his business Yough Farms LLC and the Old Growth Forest Network filed.
The petitioners want to undo an exception to the Youghiogheny River's environmental protections that was granted by Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Josh Kurtz and would allow Garrett County to construct a new bridge on an offset alignment of the existing Swallow Falls span.
DNR, joined by the Garrett County Board of Commissioners, a couple of months ago asked Garrett County Circuit Court to dismiss the petition filed by Storck and the others.
On Monday, Garrett County Circuit Court visiting Judge W. Timothy Finan denied DNR's motion to dismiss the petition.
The court's decision highlights "that the (DNR) secretary in this case is not above the law," Storck said Thursday. "And the public and courts can review those decisions."
Finan's ruling means Storck and his fellow petitioners can legally challenge Kurtz's granting of the exception.
The case is scheduled to begin April 2 in Garrett County Circuit Court.
Meanwhile, "the county can continue to spend our taxpayer dollars on making this plan ... but they cannot move an inch of dirt, cut any trees or anything until this is settled," Storck said.
"The county is really ... in the driver's seat right now," Storck said and added Garrett officials could pursue the plan to build the bridge on an offset alignment.
"To me that's gonna be fraught with legal challenges ... stress and anxiety and a lot of discourse in our community," he said. "It's going to cost a lot more."
Or, the county could develop a new plan, he said.
"We're really hopeful that they would come up with a plan that is much less impactful," Storck said and added he proposed an alternative plan "that would cut zero trees."
Paul Peditto, DNR's assistant secretary for land resources, talked of "the value of having a three-legged stool" to manage the country.
"We support it," he said and referenced the upcoming court date on the issue.
"We're certainly not going to litigate the merits here," Peditto said. "We'll wait till April."
Donald Sebold, chairman of the Yough advisory board, talked of "spending a lot of money that probably doesn't need to be spent" and referred to recent local property tax assessment increases.
"Money is important," he said.
John Bambacus, former state senator and mayor of Frostburg, is a member of the Garrett County Forestry Board.
He questioned DNR's motion to dismiss Storck's petition.
"Judicial review itself is part of our system of checks and balances," he said.
"It's the public's right to know," Bambacus said.
"Why would (the county and DNR) oppose the public's right to know?" he said.
"We're not fighting it because we want to cut trees," Peditto said. "We went through a process that ... made it clear that the county's interest in building the bridge in a new footprint was important because of the concerns they raised for public safety access during that three- to 12-month closure period."
DNR is "tasked every day with striking that balance," he said. "We do it all over the state."
Peditto talked of a former plan that allocated $4.7 million in the DNR budget for trails to be built in the designated Wild Yough corridor, which included a $700,000 grant to the Garrett County Board of Commissioners "for the acquisition, planning, design, construction, repair, renovation, reconstruction, site improvement, and capital equipping of capital improvements at Sang Run State Park at Youghiogheny River Trail Section 2 from Swallow Falls to Sang Run, including maintenance and repair projects."
The proposal ultimately failed.
"The substantial part of the funding was given back to the legislature essentially to reappropriate as I understand it," Peditto said Thursday.
He addressed a "rumor" that some of the funding was leftover to update maps of the area.
"We've since figured out that (Garrett's $700,000 grant) too was returned to the larger pot, if you will," he said. "It is no longer available to (DNR) to conduct the mapping."
DNR has prioritized the mapping updates and will pursue the process, Peditto said and estimated costs "probably in excess of half a million dollars" and the need to develop various agreements.
"We intend to do it," he said. "But you're probably talking about a process that's 18 months in the making and then somewhere in the neighborhood of a year to map it."
DNR has 500,000 acres of public land in Maryland, Peditto said.
"We would love to have all of that digitized and have all of our boundaries flawless," he said.
"For purposes of something so technical as the concept that was proposed, the trail in the Yough corridor, I'm not gonna rely solely on a digitized version of an existing map," Peditto said. "At this point our objective is to get a more substantial source of data to inform any discussion that might follow."
The board also discussed how to establish its authority and create protocol to receive notice regarding any proposed activity in the Yough corridor.
The board members and many other folks in November were surprised after DNR approved installation of monitoring equipment in the corridor by the United States Geological Survey at the request of Deep Creek Watershed Foundation.
"We need to be informed ... be made aware of (proposed activity in the Yough corridor) automatically," Sebold said. "We want to do the right thing."
Storck said DNR "legitimized" the board by asking it to convene for the Swallow Falls bridge project.
"That came from the secretary," he said. "That did not come from the county."
The advisory board plans to meet with Garrett Commissioners to further discuss its role.
"What you do is important," Bambacus told the board.
Teresa McMinn is a reporter for the Cumberland Times-News. She can be reached at 304-639-2371 or firstname.lastname@example.org.