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Annapolis council decides to challenge Severn bridge plans


ANNAPOLIS -- The Annapolis city council decided last night to go to federal court to challenge the state's plans to build an 80-foot-high bridge over the Severn River.

In an 11th-hour bid to stop construction of the $40 million replacement for the decaying Route 450 drawbridge, city aldermen voted, 7-2, to mount the legal challenge.

The decision came after a closed-door meeting during which City Attorney Jonathan A. Hodgson briefed the lawmakers on the case.

The council authorized the city to spend up to $20,000 on the legal battle. Two private Annapolis lawyers, Bryson F. Popham and Richard T. Colaresi, have agreed to represent the city at no cost.

Mr. Popham said the lawsuit would be filed in federal District Court in Baltimore within a week.

The lawyers said the suit would focus on the review process used to pick the 80-foot-high bridge. The suit will contend that highway planners failed to conduct required reviews of the bridge's impact on the environment, the city's historic district and traffic, Mr. Popham said.

The decision to turn to the courts to try to stop the bridge came after opponents of the high span failed in a bid to persuade Gov. William Donald Schaefer to reconsider the design. Mr. Schaefer announced late last month that the state would proceed with plans to build the high crossing, warning that Maryland would lose $32 million in federal funds for the project unless it took the money now.

But city aldermen who favored the lawsuit argued that the bridge would ruin the city's historic skyline, harm the environment and worsen congestion.

"We have to ensure that the city of Annapolis is not destroyed by this high bridge," said Alderman Dean L. Johnson, the Ward 2 Independent and one of the leaders in the fight against the bridge.

But Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins voted against suit, saying the city could enter a protracted legal battle and ultimately be forced to pay heavy court-awarded damages. "I'm concerned, very concerned about the amount of money that this could cost the city," he said.

A private citizens' group fighting the high span also plans to sue. Thomas McCarthy Jr., an Annapolis lawyer and a leader of Citizens for the Scenic Severn River Bridge Inc., said his group would file its lawsuit in federal court by tomorrow. The group has gathered more than 7,000 signatures from Annapolis-area residents on a petition opposing the high crossing.

The state plans to sign contracts to build the bridge by November, and construction is scheduled to begin next year.

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