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Landowners losing to Appalachian Trail Acquisition: If the National Park Service needs land, it tries to negotiate with the owner. But if the owner refuses to sell, the government can condemn the property.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HAGERSTOWN -- For 45 years, the land atop South Mountain belonged to the Physioc family. Phil Physioc, his brother, father and sons built a little stone summer cabin upon it by hand.

State forests surround the property and the Appalachian Trail runs alongside it, making the isolated patch of mountain woodlands "the best location anyone could ever want," in Physioc's eyes.

As it happens, the National Park Service thought the location was perfect, too -- perfect for expanding the buffer along the Appalachian Trail. When Physioc refused to sell his property, the government condemned it and set about to take it under eminent domain laws.

Last month, after years of legal wrangling, a jury determined that Physioc should be paid $77,000 -- or less than one-third what his appraisers claimed the land was worth.

"The money is not the point," said Physioc, who is considering an appeal. "The bottom line is that I never wanted to get rid of that property."

Physioc's case is not an isolated one.

Since 1978, the park service and the U.S. Forest Service have spent about $170 million to acquire about 145,600 acres along the 2,160 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia. Most landowners along the trail have sold their property willingly; however, about 10 percent of the landowners have refused government offers, according to Donald King, chief of the park service's land acquisition project office.

In those cases, federal agencies have taken the land under eminent domain laws that allow the government to acquire private property for public use in exchange for the fair market value. When the landowner and the government cannot agree on that figure, a judge or a jury -- as in Physioc's case -- sets the price.

"Once the secretary of the Department of the Interior declares the necessity for acquiring the property, the only issue remaining is the value of that property," said Gorman E. Getty, Physioc's attorney.

Roughly 200 tracts of land remain in private ownership along the trail that the park service would like to acquire, King said. Thirty-six of those parcels are in Maryland, including 12 in Washington and Frederick counties now involved in eminent domain proceedings, King said.

"We definitely like to negotiate a purchase for each and every piece of land," said King. "We strive to do that, but sometimes it is simply not possible."

The state Department of Natural Resources has been coordinating with the park service to acquire land along the 38 miles of Appalachian Trail in Maryland. The DNR purchases land only from willing sellers and does not exercise its powers of eminent domain, said George Forlifer, the DNR's regional administrator for Western Maryland.

However, the DNR has referred dozens of cases to the National Park Service, which, in turn, may take the property by eminent domain. Many of those who initially refused the state's offer now are waiting for the other shoe to drop.

'Jumping all over you'

"They wanted to come in and take half our garden, our chestnut trees, our raspberry field, and I said no way," said Leister Stottlemyer, who lives on 4.5 acres near Smithburg.

Said Lauri Yonker, whose family also refused to sell, "They'll go for a while and you don't hear anything and then all of a sudden, they're jumping all over you."

Three years ago, when the state decided to reroute a portion of the Appalachian Trail along Route 77, its plans ran squarely into Sara Jane Ridenour. Ridenour refused to sell a portion of the farm that has been in the family of her late husband, Emerson Ridenour, for more than 100 years. The state and Ridenour are at a standoff.

"I am fighting to keep this farm," Ridenour said. "There is no way they are going to force me to buckle under and I've told them that."

The National Trail System Act authorized the government to acquire land along the trail to protect it from encroaching civilization, logging and other threats. Mostly, the government has bought just enough land to widen the buffer to 500 feet on either side of the pathway, according to Brian King of the Appalachian Trail Conference.

In Physioc's case, however, the government took his entire parcel -- 17.8 acres by government surveys, about 20 acres by Physioc's measure.

King declined to comment on the Physioc case, citing the possibility of an appeal.

"They wanted me out, pure and simple," Physioc said. "They're using protection of the trail as a reason to file a lawsuit, but what they really want is my land."

Petitions signed by hikers

The Appalachian Trail runs about 150 feet from Physioc's cabin. In November, Physioc stood along the trail, collecting more than 100 signatures on a petition from hikers who agreed with him.

"I've never had a problem with the hikers," Physioc said.

Physioc has, however, clashed with the DNR. Several years ago, he said he was arrested for cutting and selling timber on state property. Physioc, who pleaded no contest to the charge, said he was clearing the road of trees that had blown down during a storm.

A spare man with blazing blue eyes, Physioc, 58, runs the family-owned Hagerstown Spring Works. He had fantasized about fixing up the two-story, 1,000-square-foot summer cabin on South Mountain for his retirement.

'A little paranoid'

He acknowledged that the lawsuit, which he has been fighting for more than two years, has made him "a little paranoid."

"If they want your land, they'll come after you, and when you say no, they'll just keep coming," Physioc said. "You can hire lawyers and appraisers but the government's got more lawyers and more appraisers."

He hired an appraiser who set the value of his property at $265,000. His legal bills have climbed to more than $20,000, he said.

"It's a losing proposition," said Physioc. "You can't win against the federal government."

Pub Date: 1/29/97

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