Officials with the Intercounty Connector project office improperly authorized the removal of trees in a West Laurel neighborhood last week, after an unapproved permit was inadvertently issued to a sub-contractor, according to ICC project spokesman Ray Feldmann.
According to Feldmann, the permit, which was pending approval by the Maryland Department of the Environment, would have superseded a previous permit issued in October 2012 and would have extended the tree removal boundary approximately 20 feet closer to residential properties on Fitzpatrick Drive.
"We had a misstep out there," ICC Construction Manager Mark Coblentz said inside a room full of 30 angry West Laurel residents at the West Laurel Civic Association meeting last week.
"We look at this as a very unfortunate error, it's something that is not good on our record," Coblentz said. "We are going to try to make sure this doesn't happen again, and we've made some changes."
Included in those changes was the termination of a member of the ICC project team responsible for the error, according to Feldmann.
"On behalf of the entire project, I want to apologize to the community of West Laurel," Feldmann said at the WLCA meeting. "I feel terrible about it, both personally and professionally. ... We've been working day and night since Monday to identify the failure points internally."
The property at the center of the issue lies west of southbound Interstate-95 and north of the sound wall, which begins at the intersection of I-95 and Route 198. The sound wall lies between the neighborhood's backyards and the highway.
Feldmann said the trees were being removed to make room for a stormwater management facility.
Prince George's County Council member Mary Lehman, a West Laurel resident, called the ICC's actions illegal and said she was frustrated and troubled by the explanation that the revised permit was only a matter of days from being approved.
"This is unacceptable, and we need an explanation," Lehman said at the meeting. "There have been issues before with the ICC and this process really concerns me."
Lehman added she has drafted a letter to MDE Secretary Robert Summers asking that the matter be investigated and that fines be imposed.
"You have to hit them in the pocketbook," Lehman said. "We have to be sure this doesn't happen again, and that's the way to do it."
Sharing in Lehman's frustration was a visibly angry West Laurel resident, Stu Knaszik. Knazik, who lives on Fitzpatrick Drive, alerted the ICC and Lehman to the unauthorized work on Feb. 18.
"This is a breach of policy, procedure and protocol," Knaszik said to the ICC project representatives as he stood in front of the crowd at Thursday's meeting. "The citizens of this community have been swatted away like cockroaches so you can do what you need to do. ... All you folks have a responsibility to do what's right. This is not right. This is wrong."
A contrite Coblentz acknowledged the gravity of the ICC project team's error.
"Clearing beyond the limits of disturbance is failing to uphold the permit, and there are consequences," Coblentz said.
A bump in the road
Prior to the authorization of unpermitted work, the relationship between officials with the ICC project and the West Laurel community was inharmonious at best.
Starting in 2012, residents have been vocal about the highway's plan to create connector distributor (C/D) lanes on the west side of I-95 north of Route 198.
The residents argue the lanes, which are needed to support a new interchange at Contee Road, are infringing on their neighborhood by removing trees and pushing the sound wall back approximately 25 feet.
The Contee Road interchange is being built to accommodate the anticipated increased traffic expected to come with future economic development, which includes the Konterra development.
Community members have also been sensitive to the removal of trees, stating that the pre-approved number of trees scheduled to go down was already too many, and would increase noise levels inside the residences.
To make matters worse, last week ICC project officials also failed to notify the West Laurel community that work would be commencing on President's Day, a pact agreed upon at two meetings between the WLCA and ICC project officials last summer.
"This is the third communication error for us," WLCA President Melissa Daston told Feldmann and Coblentz at the meeting. "The community of West Laurel would like you to make a commitment to improve."
Feldmann responded by saying ICC representatives are going to step up their communication efforts in the community.
"We need to fix how we communicate with you," Feldmann said. "I just want to make sure we are doing everything. We would rather over-communicate than what we did earlier this week, which was under-communicate or not communicate at all."
Feldmann said the organization is planning on placing "door hanger" fliers at residences in the area before any work commences. In addition, Feldmann is working to set up an email alert system notifying residents of work.
Feldmann said ICC project managers will also consider a suggestion made earlier by Sen. Jim Rosapepe that would set up a committee, which would meet monthly to serve as a liaison between the community and the ICC.
"At this point, we are open to exploring anything," Feldmann said. "We need to do a lot more."