June 17, 2024

The legal tug-of-war over development of waterfront land in Baltimore’s Westport neighborhood has tilted in favor of a high-speed maglev train operator seeking to build a passenger station on the site where a developer separately proposed housing.
The Court of Special Appeals, the state’s second-highest court, granted the appeal of Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail LLC, which is planning a $10 billion project to link Washington and Baltimore and eventually New York with a superconducting magnetic levitation rail system.
The opinion clears the way for Rapid Rail to pursue its eminent domain lawsuit against Westport property owner Stonewall Capital, prolonging a monthslong dispute.
On Monday, the developers for each project vowed to push ahead with plans.
Stonewall Principal Ray Jackson said he was disappointed with the appeals court’s decision, released Friday, but would continue to proceed with the planning and approval process to build 1,300-units of apartments and town houses.
“Our team will continue through the legal process and believe we will ultimately prevail as I do not believe BWRR has the right to take our property,” Jackson said in an email. “We have a viable project, capital in place and we will start building in the near future.”
The rail operator had filed a lawsuit against Westport Capital Development LLC and Stonewall to condemn the developer’s land, but last August a Baltimore circuit court judge found it had no authority to do so and dismissed the eminent domain case.
Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail, or BWRR, appealed that decision.
The appeals court reversed the lower court’s decision and remanded the case for trial in circuit court. The opinion, written on behalf of a panel of three judges by Associate Judge Stuart R. Berger, said the circuit court had erred finding that the rail operator had failed to obtain Baltimore City’s consent.
The opinion cited a 2015 order of the Maryland Public Service Commission that authorized the transfer of a former Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis Electric Railroad Co. franchise to the high-speed rail developer. Two years later, in 2017, the mayor and City Council consented to the transfer of the franchise.
If the rail builder wins federal approval for the project, and if that requires occupying public areas, it will “seek Baltimore City’s consent at that time,” the court’s opinion said.
“Until then, BWRR maintains that such consent is not required to bring this condemnation action, and we agree,” it said. “No further consent is necessary at this time.”
The court’s decision was especially significant because of its finding that “BWRR by virtue of its railroad franchise, like gas, electric or telephone companies, has the power to condemn land if it cannot reach agreement on purchase with an owner,” said Wayne Rogers, the rail company’s CEO.
Rogers contends that Stonewall and community members have known for years that the undeveloped parcel was to be used for the maglev station, but that Stonewall decided to buy the property anyway.
A Baltimore County developer plans to build a mixed-use community on one of Baltimore’s last undeveloped waterfront sites, a parcel in Westport owned by Kevin Plank. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)
Stonewall purchased the 43 undeveloped acres between Kloman Street and the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River in the South Baltimore neighborhood last June. The Baltimore County developer has proposed a variety of housing on the site with parks, a restaurant and possibly a small office building.
About two weeks earlier, Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail had filed its lawsuit, calling the filing “a last resort that we sincerely wish we did not have to pursue” after trying unsuccessfully to buy the property.
“We tried to convince him not to purchase, offered him what he was going to pay for the property before he closed, and filed the condemnation action before he closed on the purchase as a last-ditch effort to prevent conflict on the property,” Rogers said Monday.
Rogers accused Stonewall CEO Jackson of going ahead with plans to “speculate, raise costs and create local dissent.”
The rail project has been in the planning stage for about a decade and received a significant boost when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed financing the stretch between Washington and Baltimore to promote the Japanese maglev technology.
The trains traveling at speeds of up to 311 mph would connect Baltimore and Washington with a 15-minute trip and an intermediate stop at BWI Marshall Airport.
The Westport property is needed regardless of which of two proposed routes for the train is picked. Unlike a standard railroad, maglev uses technology that runs on a fixed underground or elevated guideway powered by magnetic forces.
Rogers said high-speed rail would be transformational for the city, bringing investment and jobs and training for local residents. Critics, however, have said maglev would be an affordable transportation option only for the wealthy.
Jackson said his ONE Westport development project continues to have the support of Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, the Baltimore City Council, the city planning department and residents in the Westport community.
Westport residents have backed Stonewall’s plans and amenities such as publicly accessible parkland to connect new waterfront development to the existing Westport neighborhood.
Lisa R. Hodges-Hiken, executive director of the nonprofit Westport Community Economic Development Corp., said her group was disappointed with the latest court ruling and that its members remain committed to fighting maglev “on every front.”
“We do see this as a step backwards,” Hodges-Hiken said Monday. “This is a vanity project delivering nothing of value for the citizens who would be most deeply affected by its development.”
She vowed to work with Stonewall Capital on strategies to protect the waterfront from becoming a staging area for a speculative project.
Her organization also has weighed in against the maglev with the Federal Railroad Administration. The agency paused its review of the project last August, when it said it had no timeline for completion of environmental planning.
Even if Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail prevails in court and condemns the property, Jackson said he does not it has the financial capacity to actually purchase the property.
”The public continues to ask how will BWRR facilitate the massive development project and if they are not able to settle our property, this will continue to add to these concerns,” Jackson said.
Copyright © 2022, Baltimore Sun
Copyright © 2022, Baltimore Sun

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