With heavy snow blanketing the stately streets of Ruxton, David Townsend made a simple request to a Baltimore County Public Works Department crew: send a plow down our street, so my wife and others can get to work.
But a top county official said the reluctant decision this weekend to plow the street where Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend lives was wrong because the lane appears to be privately owned.
"In the end, I don't agree that the county should use public resources on private roads -- it's not appropriate," said Charles R. Olsen, county public works director. "If I had been there when the call came in, I would not have agreed to do it."
For years, neighbors had come to expect the county to clear the street. When the plowing stopped this year, that posed a problem for the lieutenant governor, who is normally picked up by a state police driver.
Exactly what Townsend asked for last weekend and how he made the request remain questions.
The tenor of his comments holds the key to whether his request was a friendly inquiry or something more.
Olsen said David Townsend "was very insistent about the fact that if we didn't do it, the state police would not get to her."
After a long conversation, a county supervisor relented, Olsen said, and sent a truck to clear a route to her door.
"We just made a path," but did not plow thoroughly, the public works chief said.
Townsend spokesman's view
A spokesman for the lieutenant governor said David Townsend, a professor at St. John's College in Annapolis, never insisted that the county plow Crosmorr Lane, the short narrow street in one of Baltimore County's priciest neighborhoods.
As he was shoveling his driveway, Townsend asked passing public works crews to clear the street, as they have done for years, said spokesman Michael Morrill.
Townsend asked to use the truck's radio to tell the dispatcher how the road had been plowed in the past, Morrill said, but turned down an opportunity that would have let the road be cleared immediately.
"He could very well have said it's an emergency," Morrill said. "He did not. That's not the case."
While it's unlikely the debate will erupt into a major campaign issue, the incident has political overtones.
Townsend is expected to run for governor in 2002, and a likely campaign opponent is Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who has ultimate responsibility for the Department of Public Works.
In a brief interview yesterday near the circular driveway of her gray three-story Victorian home with maroon shutters, the lieutenant governor said she was not home when her husband made the request. She had accompanied her daughter back to college and was out of town, she said.
But she said that the status of the road -- whether public or private -- is a sticky issue.
"It's been a bone of contention for a long time," Townsend said.
Neighbors differ with county
Neighbors on Crosmorr Lane said that despite the county's contention to the contrary, the road was given to the county about two decades ago, and has been maintained with public funds since then.
But the situation changed in August.
That's when county officials informed residents that they could find no paperwork showing that a deed making the road public had been recorded. That meant paving trucks would no longer fill potholes, and snowplows wouldn't show up, either.
"It upsets me the county has behaved this way," said Sandy Hargrave, a neighbor of the Townsends. "They've maintained it, cleared it. This year, it suddenly is not on the records, not on the map."
Louis Hargrave, Sandy Hargrave's husband, is an attorney who said he gathered signatures from his five neighbors more than 20 years ago to give the road to the county.
The Townsend family did not live there then, he said.
"We wanted to get the road paved," Louis Hargrave said. "It was a dirt road. That's what we had to do to get it done. It probably was in the nature of a deed, but I don't remember."
No paperwork available
But he does not have the paperwork. Nor does the county.
It's possible that the county mistakenly maintained a private road for years, said Arnold Jablon, the county's development chief.
"We show it is a private road," said Shirley Murphy, chief of the county's land acquisition bureau. "It's not within our public inventory, and it's not showing on our maintenance list."