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Real Estate

Condemnation lawsuit over Westport land sought for high-speed rail project between Baltimore and D.C. could move quickly to trial

A developer plans to build a mixed-use community on one of Baltimore's last undeveloped waterfront sites, a parcel in Westport.

A Baltimore Circuit Court judge plans to move quickly to resolve a legal dispute over a large waterfront tract in Westport that could either become a housing development or be taken through condemnation for a high-speed rail project.

During a virtual hearing Thursday, Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill denied a request by the developer fighting the condemnation bid that would have required Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail LLC to post a $31 million bond.

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The rail operator, planning a $10 billion project to link Washington and Baltimore with a superconducting magnetic levitation rail system, filed the condemnation lawsuit in June 2021. It has argued that authority to take the 43-acre parcel for the rail project through eminent domain stems from its acquisition of the former Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Electric Railroad Co. franchise in 2015.

Land owners Stonewall Capital and Westport Capital Development say the rail operator has no financial ability to buy the site and is interfering with its plans to build 1,300 apartments and 249 town houses along with shops, offices and a park, a vision embraced by community members.

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Though he declined to require a security posting, Fletcher-Hill said Thursday that he intended to work with the parties on scheduling to “drive this case to a quick trial date. We’re going to reach a resolution one way or the other.”

A jury trial will establish the property’s value as well as a deadline by which the rail operator would need to acquire the property and “literally put its money behind its purpose if that funding is there,” Fletcher-Hill said.

During a two-hour hearing, Matthew Sturtz, an attorney for Stonewall, cast doubt on Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail’s operation as a company and its ability to buy land he said is worth $31 million, based on appraisals and separate builders’ contracts and letters of intent to buy each of six parcels.

Though some of the builder agreements have stalled because of the “impediment” of the lawsuit, Sturtz said, national builder NVR Homes is committed to paying $11 million for a parcel where it would build homes.

“This development is “a fantastic opportunity for a particular area of Baltimore City that has long been neglected known as Westport,” Sturtz said.

The Rapid Rail company, on the other hand, has no assets, has acquired no other properties between Baltimore and Washington and is stuck in a federal approvals process that has been on hold for more than a year, Sturtz said.

He called the rail project “a futuristic vision for transportation on the East Coast, but there is no guarantee that any magnetic levitation train will ever be approved or constructed in this corridor.”

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Brett Ingerman, an attorney for BWRR, said the company indeed has assets and operations and is working on obtaining necessary funding and approvals. It was established to help develop and bring the maglev train to part of the Eastern corridor, he said, an undertaking that will generate hundreds if not thousands of Maryland jobs and “will provide a tremendous transit opportunity getting between D.C. and New York in a very, very short period of time.”

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Of the proposed Westport development, Ingerman said: “We don’t believe it’s ever going to happen. There’s a long history of failure on this property.”

The rail operator believes the property value has decreased, even from the $13 million that Stonewall principal Ray Jackson paid for it, Ingerman said.

Before ruling on the defendants’ motion, the judge said both the mixed-use development and the rail project may be publicly beneficial uses.

“But there’s no question that the potential development of it for housing and mixed-use development is closer at hand than its development or use by the plaintiff [BWRR],” Fletcher-Hill said. “I’m concerned that a speculative possible use of that sort, through this lawsuit, can suspend or slow down the property owners’ use of their own property.”

He added that legally nothing is stopping Stonewall from proceeding.

But “this is an economic issue,” he said. “It’s perfectly understandable why people don’t want to put shovels in the ground and start building improvements on land that is going to be potentially taken away.”


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