A Baltimore City judge has dismissed a lawsuit that sought to condemn a Westport developer’s land to build a high-speed maglev train, casting doubt on the future of the Baltimore-to-Washington rail project.
Circuit Court Judge Kendra Y. Ausby granted Sparks-based Stonewall Capital’s request to dismiss the eminent domain case after a 30-minute virtual hearing Monday.
Stonewall purchased 43 undeveloped acres on Kloman Street in South Baltimore’s Westport neighborhood in June for a 1,300-unit apartment and town house project. About two weeks earlier, Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail filed a lawsuit to condemn the land, calling the filing “a last resort that we sincerely wish we did not have to pursue” after trying unsuccessfully to buy the property.
“I am overly appreciative to the community and mayor and planning department for their support of ONE Westport,” said Stonewall Principal Ray Jackson, who has proposed features such as publicly accessible parkland to connect new waterfront development to the existing Westport neighborhood. “This has been a collaborative effort and I am appreciative Judge Ausby found in our favor.”
Ausby, who issued a decision after hearing both parties’ arguments, agreed with Stonewall that the rail company lacks the authority to acquire the Westport property for public use through eminent domain.
But the rail operator plans to appeal the ruling and is forging ahead with planning the $10 billion project, CEO Wayne Rogers said Monday. Rogers said that connecting Baltimore and Washington with a 15-minute trip would transform Baltimore, helping to create jobs, reverse population decline, boost real estate values, and improve climate and air quality by taking16 million cars off the road.
“This is more than a few more houses,” Rogers said. “This is a huge future benefit for Baltimore. ... We’re going to continue bringing this crucial, needed project to Baltimore and the Northeast corridor.”
The railroad argued that its authority came from its 2015 acquisition of the former Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Electric Railroad Co. franchise, approved by the Maryland Public Service Commission. The maglev company said condemnation power came with the franchise.
Condemnation was to be a last resort if the railroad failed to reach an agreement to acquire the essential land for a Baltimore-to-Washington route, Rogers has said.
But the judge found that the public service commission’s order did not authorize the Westport condemnation. To approve a condemnation to serve a railroad, a court would have to find the taking of property necessary for a public use or agree with a public service commission order making that finding, she said.
“The PSC order does not authorize this specific condemnation,” Ausby said. “And it goes to great lengths to note that there just was not evidence presented or enough evidence to the commission to be able to even make a determination as to whether or not actual construction at a particular place in Baltimore City would serve a public interest.”
Rogers has said the economic and environmental benefits of a train whisking riders between Baltimore and Washington in 15 minutes, and eventually up to New York in under an hour, would outweigh the benefits of waterfront housing, not only for Baltimore but the state and the Northeast corridor.
A draft of the environmental impact statement for the project, which has been in planning stages for five years, was unveiled in January, showing Westport’s undeveloped waterfront as essential to either of the two potential routes alongside the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Rogers has said.
The rail operator plans to file an appeal with the state Court of Special Appeals based on errors the company believes were made in Monday’s ruling, Rogers said.
While the decision is a setback, “I don’t think it will delay the project overall,” he said.
The railroad is finalizing design elements and working on getting permits and submitting an environmental impact statement to the Federal Railroad Administration, which is expected to make a decision next year.
Rogers said the currently vacant Westport property remains part of the preferred route because it would allow the railroad to achieve its goal of building the entire project without having to condemn any houses.
“What started this problem was the plan by the developer to come in and put 1,500 houses right square in the path of the train,” Rogers said. “We didn’t want anyone to buy a house and find out a train is coming through the area.”
Baltimore City recently asked the federal government not to approve the train, citing concerns about equity and the project’s effects on the environment in a letter submitted during the project’s unusually long public comment period, which ended in May. The city’s consent is required under state public utilities law, a requirement the rail developers have not met, Ausby noted in explaining her decision.
The Westport Community Economic Development Corp. also weighed in against the maglev during the environmental review process, saying the neighborhood group preferred the proposed housing development to the train.
Stonewall purchased the land, one of the city’s last undeveloped waterfront sites, from Westport Property Investments, an entity controlled by Under Armour founder Kevin Plank’s real estate firm. The developer is subdividing the land along the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River into six parcels and has contracts or is in negotiations to sell three of them for housing or commercial development.