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Maglev company sues to condemn land planned for Westport development, setting up showdown between projects in South Baltimore

The proposed $10 billion, high-speed maglev train between Baltimore and Washington and a major waterfront housing development planned in the city’s Westport neighborhood are hurtling toward a legal showdown: Both would require the same land.

In a legal complaint whose outcome likely will decide which project moves forward, Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail is seeking to condemn the 43-acre undeveloped property along Kloman Street, across the light rail tracks from Westport and the Exelon Generation station.

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The maglev operator, which eventually hopes to extend its train to New York, called the Baltimore Circuit Court filing “a last resort that we sincerely wish we did not have to pursue.” It followed repeated attempts to find “a mutually beneficial path forward,” including a rebuffed, $13 million bid to buy the property.

“We believe it would be irresponsible to construct new townhomes and create a situation of conflict between new residential owners and the SCMAGLEV project,” Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail spokeswoman Kristen Thomaselli said in a statement.

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The complaint was filed June 7, before Sparks-based Stonewall Capital finalized its purchase of the parcel along the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. The terms of the purchase from Westport Property Investments, a real estate firm of Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, were not disclosed.

Rendering from Stonewall Capital of affordable apartments and senior housing in the Westport development.
Rendering from Stonewall Capital of affordable apartments and senior housing in the Westport development. (Rendering from Stonewall Capital of the Westport development concept)

If the court sides with the railroad, Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail, officials will continue to await the Federal Railroad Administration’s decision about whether to authorize the project to move forward. If the feds green-light the project next spring, it could break ground as soon as late 2022.

If the complaint is dismissed, construction could begin within a year on a planned 1,300-unit waterfront community. Stonewall has agreed to sell parcels to town house and apartment builders, according to the company’s principal, Ray Jackson.

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.

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Attorneys for Stonewall likely will ask the court to dismiss the condemnation case, arguing that the maglev builder has no authority to condemn, a consultant for the developer said.

Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail claims it has that authority, stemming from its acquisition of the former Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Electric Railroad Co. franchise in 2015. But in a ruling that year, the state’s Public Service Commission found “no evidence that requiring BWRR to obtain Baltimore City’s consent will ‘prevent or unreasonably interfere with railroad transportation.’”

Lisa R. Hodges-Hiken, executive director of the Westport Community Economic Development Corp., said her nonprofit also weighed in against the maglev during the environmental review process, saying the group preferred the proposed housing development to the train.

“The options for having the [Maglev] station in Cherry Hill require an egregious amount of waterfront property in Westport, and it’s just not acceptable to us, especially since it’s not really built for Westport residents,” she said.

When the Westport CEDC invited officials from both projects to present their visions to its members, only Jackson and his partners in the housing development accepted the invitation, Hodges-Hiken said.

Members pressed Jackson about the parts of his project “that give us heartburn,” she said, and secured assurances from the developer about addressing increased traffic, providing access to the nearby light rail stop, eliminating barriers between old and new housing, and other issues.

The condemnation effort likely will delay the benefits the neighborhood stands to gain from the housing development, including a park at the end of Wenburn Street and other investment spurred by the additional housing, Hodges-Hiken said. She said she envisions a waterfront destination for families, not a railroad going through.

“We don’t want to be another little historically Black neighborhood carved up by folks who don’t give a crap about us, quite frankly,” she said.

Wayne Rogers, CEO of Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail, disputed that notion. He said he had received no invitation to visit the Westport CEDC, and argued that a maglev use for the site still could accommodate a park.

After this article posted online, Maxwell Meyers, urban strategy and planning analyst with the maglev project, emailed Hodges-Hiken, claiming the company had since discovered “some communication between WCEDC and a former Northeast Maglev employee who is no longer with the company.”

“Our understanding is that this conversation never confirmed a specific date and time that worked for both of us, and that there was no follow-up afterwards to schedule a date and time,” he wrote. “That dialogue never made it to Wayne’s desk, and that is our staff’s fault.”

Meyers apologized to Hodges-Hiken “for not following-up more closely with you and the WCEDC and for not maintaining a better relationship with your organization throughout the past few years.”

“He basically called me a liar,” Hodges-Hiken said.

Rogers said his project holds significantly more promise for all city residents than the ONE Westport development.

“Essentially, it’s competing visions,” he said.

The train project would put about $8.8 billion in workers’ pockets, use 40% women and minority labor, and remove 16 million cars from the corridor’s roads, Rogers said. The high-density housing development, on the other hand, “is the opposite of everything in our vision,” he said.

Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail said it wants to see a transit‐oriented development built “in conjunction with a Cherry Hill SCMAGLEV Station, support facilities, and long‐term jobs totaling a local investment of approximately $1 billion on the property.”

Allowing the railroad to condemn the property “would mean the Westport project would not happen,” said Al Barry of AB Associates, a consultant working with Stonewall on the project.

“That would be unfortunate,” Barry said. “It’s our understanding they don’t have funding for this, an environmental review might take two to four years, and meanwhile, Ray and his development partners are ready to proceed.”

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Barry said Stonewall has not put any work on hold, including planning and engineering, submitting subdivision plans to the city, and selling off parcels to apartment, town house and office builders.

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Stonewall finalized its purchase June 18. The lawsuit was filed against the property’s seller, former owner Westport Property Investments, “so that [Stonewall] would have an opportunity not to close and create a conflict,” the railroad said.

“We were frankly surprised over the timing of the lawsuit for condemnation,” Barry said, “given that it was almost upon the settlement date.”

Rogers argued the opposite, saying Jackson moved ahead with the deal despite knowing the land was needed for the maglev and that the legal action already was filed .

“He knew what the plan was,” the BWRR CEO said. “He closed on it anyway.”

Jackson has been in discussions with Rogers since December, a couple of months after Jackson signed a contract, Barry said. Until that point, he said, “none of us knew the specifics of what they were planning and where they were planning to put it.”

Rogers said the maglev plans have been on its website for a year. The train won’t displace any residents from their homes, he said, unless the Westport development is built.

“It has to stop before some unsuspecting buyer or something buys what they may consider their home, and, all of a sudden, they have a train coming through it,” he said.

The condemnation suit was first reported by the Baltimore Business Journal.

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