A developer planning waterfront housing in Westport is seeking to dismiss a lawsuit by a rail operator that says it needs the land for a high-speed maglev train linking Baltimore and Washington.
Sparks-based Stonewall Capital purchased 43 undeveloped acres on Kloman Street in the South Baltimore neighborhood last month for a 1,300-unit apartment and town house project. About two weeks earlier, maglev company Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail had filed a lawsuit to condemn the land, calling the filing “a last resort that we sincerely wish we did not have to pursue.”
Stonewall countered Thursday in Baltimore Circuit Court with a motion to dismiss the suit, arguing that the rail company lacks the authority to acquire private property for public use through eminent domain. The maglev builder also failed to pursue condemnation within four years after it said it won authorization to acquire the property, a deadline specified in state law, the filing says. And, the motion says, the maglev builders have offered no details on timing or funding for the project.
“We will continue to work diligently to defend our rights as the titleholders of the property and work to develop the property in collaboration with the existing community and our strategic partners for the betterment of Baltimore City,” Ray Jackson, a principal with Stonewall, said Thursday in an email.
The rail project has no authority to “take away from us the planned development that has support from the community, political stakeholders and the market,” Jackson said.
The rail operator, which eventually hopes to extend its train to New York, says its authority comes from its 2015 acquisition of the former Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Electric Railroad Co. franchise. Condemnation power came with the franchise, designed as a last resort if the railroad failed to reach an agreement to acquire essential land for a Baltimore-to-Washington route, Wayne Rogers, CEO of Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail, said Friday.
Rogers argues that the economic and environmental benefits of a train whisking riders from Baltimore to Washington in 15 minutes, and eventually from Baltimore to New York in under an hour, would outweigh benefits of waterfront housing, not only for Baltimore but the state and the Northeast corridor.
And he says both Stonewall and the previous property owners were aware of the plans and of work on an environmental impact statement over the past five years. A draft of the impact statement was unveiled in January, showing Westport’s undeveloped waterfront as essential to either of the two potential routes alongside the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, he said.
Rogers said he met with Jackson, hoping that he’d work cooperatively or decline to buy the property. Rogers said he offered $13 million for the property, the price Stonewall paid, to the previous owner and to Stonewall, and was turned down. The seven-year construction project requires access to the entire property, although the rail line would only take up about a third when finished, he said.
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“We set a goal of going from Washington to Baltimore without taking a single house,” Rogers said. “If we don’t do anything and allow houses to be built, we’d have to face 1,500 people to say, ‘We have to knock down your house.’”
“There is a cost of doing nothing,” he said. “We can’t lose sight of the future and the big picture.”
The Federal Railroad Administration is deciding whether allow the rail operator to move forward with the project. If such an approval comes by next spring, groundbreaking could start by late 2022.
Baltimore City recently asked the federal government not to approve the train, citing concerns about equity and the project’s effects on the environment.
Jackson has said he had been in discussions with Rogers since December, a couple of months after he signed a contract. Until that point, the developers said they were unaware of the specifics of the plans.
Stonewall’s filing says the maglev builder first sought to buy the property from former owner Westport Property Investments, a real estate firm of Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, then rushed to seek condemnation before a sale to Stonewall could be completed.
Jackson said construction could begin within a year on a planned community of homes, shops, stores and a park. Stonewall has agreed to sell parcels to town house and apartment builders, he said.