SANDY SPRING -- For decades, the road was a lifeline for an African-American enclave in Sandy Spring.
Residents walked on it to get groceries at the country store. They drove on it to gather firewood. They cleared snow off it and made sure water drained.
The unpaved Farm Road, as it has always been called, is still there, a remnant of a long-gone rural life in this eastern corner of Montgomery County. But a government agency has now determined that, legally speaking, the road never existed. And for about 20 people who live or own land along it, that's a big problem.
Without official acknowledgment that the Farm Road connects to a nearby public road, they can't get addresses for their parcels. Without addresses, they can't get permits to build on their land. They accuse the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission of rendering their land useless.
Michele Awkard wants to build on a small parcel behind the house where her father lives. She's been living with her sister next door.
"I want my own place for me and my children," said Awkard, 35. But she said the agency told her she can't build one.
Awkard said she has learned that the Farm Road is included in the chain of title of every property along its path, and that the deeds describe it as a boundary line or right of way. Her position is that it's a private road that should be recognized as an easement - the right to make limited use of neighbors' property - so she and her neighbors can drive on it to a public road.
But Rose Krasnow, chief of the development review division of Park and Planning, said property owners along the path don't have an easement - and so they don't have access to a public road.
"There is no indication that the farm road was anything other than that - a farm road," said Krasnow. "It was completely controlled by the property owners involved. I know of no easement on it."
Valerie Berton, an agency spokeswoman, said in a written statement: "We have nothing that says the general public ever benefited from the 'farm road' so this is more like a private driveway. Everyone should understand what chaos would result if every private farm road from 200 years ago is somehow transformed into a public roadway."
Property owners have filed two lawsuits against Park and Planning, seeking access to a nearby public road from the Farm Road. The agency prevailed in one, which is being appealed; a second lawsuit refiled in September is pending. Residents say they also have appealed for help unsuccessfully to state legislators and members of the Montgomery County Council.
Robert Awkard, a cousin of Michele, says ownership of his land can be traced to freed slaves. Born in 1922, he said that when his parents moved to Philadelphia, he decided to remain in Sandy Spring, where his grandparents raised him.
He said he and his relatives helped maintain the Farm Road, patching holes and cutting shrubbery.
Now he wants to sell his three acres or give the land to his grandchildren.
"This land is no good to me, the way it is now. I don't see why I have to pay taxes on something that I can't use," said Awkard, a retired landscaper.
The Awkards and William P. Rounds are getting help in their battle against Park and Planning from Steve Kanstoroom, a retired businessman who has clashed with the agency over other issues.
Kanstoroom said he has found the Farm Road on an 1895 survey, a 1966 tax map, a Park and Planning topographic map, and the agency's address book. He also said Park and Planning has approved at least three addresses for parcels along the road, most recently in 2002.
On a recent afternoon, Rounds walked from his vacant parcel down the hill to a section of the Farm Road.
It resembles a trail today. There used to be more houses along the Farm Road, Rounds said. Some burned. Others were demolished. A vehicle probably hasn't been driven the entire length since the 1950s, he said. Sections are heavily wooded.
Rounds removed a few branches in the road's path. He pointed to an old driveway still visible, and then walked slowly along a 500-foot section that he repaired with gravel two years ago.
A Gaithersburg resident, Rounds said he isn't asking Montgomery County to turn the Farm Road from a private road into a public one. He said he and other property owners would maintain it.
Rounds said he only wants Park and Planning to recognize the Farm Road so he can sell his land. He said he's in danger of losing his most valuable asset.
"They are taking advantage of me because I don't have the power. They have the power. I don't," he said.