The Town of Chevy Chase seems headed toward a lawsuit against the state over the Purple Line, though on Wednesday the Town’s Council pushed a decision on legal funding to February.
The Council held a public hearing on the merits of spending $360,000 on an 18-month contract with one of two firms that could assist in litigation, pursue a public relations strategy and even lobby federal officials in charge of the light rail project’s fate.
Most of the 27 residents who spoke Wednesday were in favor of spending the money in a legal fight. A few opposed to the Purple Line suggested the Town avoid taking an antagonistic approach with the Maryland Transit Administration, or risk losing key mitigation pieces if the 16-mile light rail is built.
A few more spoke in favor of the Purple Line, saying the Town’s official opposition to it didn’t reflect the feeling of a majority of the residents and has “brought shame on the Town,” from others in the community.
Part of the light rail would run behind homes in the square mile town of about 3,000 residents, many who live in expensive single family homes. Among Purple Line supporters, the Town’s opposition to it has been branded elitist.
“It’s just a talking point,” said Tina Coplan, against the Purple Line and in favor of spending the money on a legal battle to stop it. “The people who opposed different aspects of this all support public transit and supported a lot of the cheaper methods. But they were all rejected. I think we should put a few dollars into defending ourselves.”
The Town claims building a rapid bus transit system would be cheaper and less disruptive. It immediately called for the MTA to re-study a route and mode for the Purple Line after it released its Final Environmental Impact Statement.
Many of those in favor of ponying up for a legal battle said the Town should focus its strategy on the Hay’s Spring amphipod, an endangered half-inch crustacean that likely lives in Rock Creek Park, over which the Purple Line would run. The MTA did not mention the critter in its Impact Statement.
Some said that presented an opportunity for litigation and was telling of a process in which they felt lied to and manipulated by the MTA.
“We are actually doing a public good by holding the feet to the fire of the Purple Line,” said Beth Barnett, whose house backs up to the Georgetown Branch Trail where the Purple Line would be built. “The ridership numbers are bogus. We’re going to have an empty train going back-and-forth.”
“We might not be able to do something. It may go through, that’s fine,” said NBC4 chief meteorologist Doug Kammerer, whose house also backs up to the Trail. “But I really feel that if we’re able to get some kind of representation, that will allow us to follow the right paths. Without it, we’re entering a fight without a boxer.”
The Council will vote on the $360,000 at its February meeting, but decided on Wednesday to continue its existing contract with D.C.-based Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney for another month. That firm and D.C.-based Dickstein Shapiro have been interviewed for the 18-month contract, Mayor Pat Burda said.
The word lawsuit was thrown out by some who testified Wednesday, though Burda said the Town should be purposefully vague about specific legal strategies if it decides to spend the money. The state is expecting a Record Of Decision on federal funding for the $2.2 billion project in the next month. On Wednesday, it announced a list of four teams of private companies in the running to build and operate the system. The MTA hopes to start construction on the Purple Line in 2015.
“I get nervous because I think part of having a strategy is being able to execute it,” Burda said. “I’m concerned if we went too into specifics, there will be some undermining of our efforts that would not be productive.”
Some expressed concern that fighting a project that seems like a done deal would hurt the Town’s ability to achieve meaningful mitigation, such as a promised six-foot noise barrier and a crossing other than the at-grade one planned at Lynn Drive.
“We have no documentation or no legal, binding anything, no mention in the FEIS to guarantee this,” said Mary Anne Hoffman, who coordinated with the MTA as a member of the Town’s Purple Line Mitigation Advisory Group. “I urge that we retain counsel to, at the very least, get a codified, documented, legal and binding way of ensuring those things.”
The Town, however, panned a proposal by the MTA to provide a protected underground crossing at Lynn Drive because it would mean raising the light rail in that section to 28 feet above grade.
“The Town’s position is disingenuous,” said Donald Farren, a resident in favor of the Purple Line. “The Mitigation Committee has been offered many alternatives by the state, but the Committee has voted down all of them. Resisting the Purple Line by filing a lawsuit results in loss of credibility and influence over achieving features of the Purple Line that will benefit residents of the Town.”
Matilde Farren followed by comparing the Town Council to Lord Grantham, the fictional patriarch in the TV show “Downton Abbey” known for resisting the inevitable change around him.
“I’m afraid that we may be doing the same thing. Trying to keep our Town the way it was in the 20s is not realistic,” Farren said. “Times are changing and we need to change with time.”