WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court declined Monday to hear an appeal from two Queen Anne’s lumber companies that claimed the Maryland Highway Administration took their property and reneged on a 50-year deal.
At issue is a 1952 deal in which S.E.W. Friel and Friel Lumber Co. agreed to give the state six acres of land for Route 301. In exchange, the state built a crossover of the new highway so the Friels could have continued access between their lumber yards and Queenstown.
But in 2002, the Maryland Highway Administration said it was eliminating the crossover at Melvin Avenue, citing safety concerns after a number of accidents there.
The Friels objected but to no avail. They then sued, seeking to block the closing of the Melvin Avenue crossover and seeking monetary compensation, claiming the closure denied them access to the highway.
“The Friels believed that they had made an agreement . . . to give land to the state and not take it back, and the state (agreed) to build a crossover and not take it back,” said Donald Braden, the attorney for the Friel companies.
But state officials said the 1952 deal did not grant the Friels a property right in the crossover. It was built for the Friels’ “convenience,” but not for them to retain a property right, said Sidney Campen, special counsel to the State Highway Administration.
“They conveyed all their rights and interests in that deed,” Campen said. “The deed conveyed all the interest that they had.”
The Queen Anne’s Circuit Court and the Court of Special Appeals agreed, ruling that the companies had no property rights in the dispute, and the Court of Appeals declined to take up the case.
But Braden said the courts “focused on the deed to the land and it failed to focus on the agreements of the parties.” Instead of buying the land, he said, the state agreed to build a macadam crossover on the median, but “reneged on its word and closed the crossover.”
Braden said the Friels believed they had a property right in perpetuity to the crossover when they signed the agreement and that “the people would be able to cross over the crossover forever.”
S.E.W. Friel and James Friel were the companies’ owners when the 1952 agreement was signed, and they have been succeeded by James Friel Jr., James Friel III and Robert Friel, the current plaintiffs.
The Friels argued that eliminating the crossover would negatively impact their operations, requesting $20 million as compensation.
But State Highway Administration spokeswoman Kellie Boulware said crossover removal “was not done to impede” the Friels but for safety reason.
Besides, the closure did not entirely block the Friels’ access to Route 301, Campen said. They have at least three other access points to the highway, he said.
But Braden argued in the petition to the Supreme Court that the state’s taking back what it promised the Friels 50 years ago is a question of federal law that should be settled by the high court.
“The state should not be permitted to renege on their part of the agreement 50 years or any number of years down the road,” Braden said. “It’s dangerous when the state fails to keep its word.”
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