C&O Canal property owners form advisory panel

February 14, 2000|By BRUCE HAMILTON

C&O Canal homeowners have formed an advisory committee that will work with U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., in an effort to stave off their imminent eviction.

Bartlett met Monday with about 16 people whose property use permits expire this year. They discussed strategies to postpone the deadline as well as the possibility of challenging the National Park Service in court.

"Is there a chance of involving the courts in this in a due process suit? What we need is a delaying action," said Bartlett. "I think you could make a strong case that due process wasn't used."

When the National Park Service created the C&O National Historical Park in the early 1970s, it bought properties from about 1,100 people. About 204 property owners signed deeds that allowed them to use their properties, some for as long as 25 years.


Only 29 remain and their rights expire by next year. They must move or salvage the structures or in effect donate them to the Park Service for lease to other people.

Many want to stay. They say the Park Service threatened to condemn their properties and they were forced to sell their land for unfair prices.

"I felt like I had a gun to my head, I had no choice, I signed the papers," said George Stumbaugh. He tried to sell a scenic easement to the government instead in 1974 but was told that wasn't an option, he said.

Later he discovered neighboring homeowners sold easements and kept ownership of the land. At Monday's meeting, others claimed land acquisition officers manipulated them to get their land years ago.

Douglas Faris, superintendent of the C&O National Historical Park, was not on the job back when the property owners sold their land. But the transactions were legal, and were based on fair market appraisals, he said.

"They've had the right to use the properties for 25 years and not pay taxes on it. That's a wonderful deal," said Faris. He said he cannot extend the leases and to do so would be against Park Service policy.

On Monday, Bartlett expressed his sympathy for the property owners. He compared the Park Service to an out-of-control creature Congress created. "It's like raising an alligator in your back yard. Pretty soon it's big enough to eat you," he said.

Bartlett said the C&O should be treated as a heritage park, allowing residents to remain. "They are proceeding as if this is a wilderness park," he said.

Former Frederick County Commissioner Mark Hoke, whom Bartlett appointed to the advisory group, said he believes a compromise can be reached. "There is a way. All we have to do is find it," he said.

Bartlett's office on Monday arranged a meeting with Faris, but a date was not set.

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