Fence fight exposes “Save the Trail” conflict of interest.

An upcoming appeal trial about a back yard fence exposes a severe conflict of interest of “Save the Trail”. In short, the president of “Save the Trail” has been found guilty in District Court of building his back yard fence and shed on the publicly owned Georgetown Branch right-of-way, and he is appealing the order to remove it.

The appeal is scheduled for trial on 04/23/2013. (Case #8929D, filed on 02/21/2014 with the Maryland Circuit Court for Montgomery County, for Violation of Montgomery County Code.) Mr. Ajay Bhatt of the 3300 block of Coquelin Terrace, Chevy Chase, is appealing the District Court of Montgomery County finding on 01/21/2014 that he was guilty of violating county code by installing a fence beyond his private property.

Back yard fence going up on 5/13/2013
as seen from the Georgetown Branch Trail

A brief background:

A few key dates put Mr. Bhatt’s fence into perspective:

  • 1988: The Montgomery County Council allocates $10.5M to purchase the abandoned B&O Railroad right-of-way, for potential shared use for both transit and a trail.
  • 1994: An interagency task force recommends an Interim Trail be installed on the r.o.w. between Bethesda and Stewart Avenue, to have a gravel surface built on the railbed with minimal improvements to convey the INTERIM nature of the trail pending a decision about the kind of transit to be build in the corridor. Two years later the Interim Trail opens.
  • 2006: Ajay Bhatt purchases his house adjacent to the publicly owned Georgetown Branch r.o.w. and Interim Trail, at the 3300 block of Coquilin Terrace. The County Council is on record in support of building the Purple Line in this r.o.w. and the MTA is holding public meetings evaluating alternative transit modes in this r.o.w. throughout this time period.
  • May 2012: MTA representives meet with the Coquelin Run Citizens Association (CRCA) and give a briefing on current Purple Line plans in the neighborhood. MTA presents a detailed map showing where lot lines are on Coquelin Terrace relative to future Purple Line construction.

    Partial MTA map presented to CRCA
    (click on image for full map as large .pdf)
  • May 2013: Mr. Bhatt constructs his fence at an approx. 27′ standoff from the centerline of the Georgetown Branch r.o.w. (a minimum 45′ standoff is needed here to stay out of the publicly owned r.o.w.). The fence stands directly in the path of a proposed Purple Line retaining wall.
  • October 2013: Montgomery County issues a citation for a Building Code violation – building a fence beyond private property. Mr. Bhatt challenges the citation and the issue goes to court.
  • Jan. 21, 2014: Mr. Bhatt is found guilty of the violation in District Court and is fined $500, suspended and is given 30 days to remove his fence and shed. Mr. Bhatt appeals, and the appeal is scheduled to be heard in the Maryland Circuit Court on 4/23/2014.

A fight Montgomery County must win for the public:

The Georgetown Branch Corridor right-of-way is lined along its length by many encroachments from adjacent property owners. The majority of the encroachments are old fences and sheds that were erected years ago when the B&O Railroad still ran trains, before the county had purchased the r.o.w. and declared its intention to use the corridor for joint transit/trail use.

Mr. Bhatt’s encroachment is very recent – done after specific plans for public use of the right-of-way had been published widely. Mr. Bhatt’s encroachment is very egregious – extending deep into the publicly owned r.o.w. so that his fence and back yard shed stand directly in the path of a planned Purple Line retaining wall. The County has little choice but to defend this right-of-way against Mr. Bhatt’s direct challenge.

This fence exposes a conflict of interest for “Save the Trail”:

No one questions Mr. Bhatt’s right to use the court system to assert his claim that he can legally build a fence in the Georgetown Branch right-of-way. But his fence does raise some questions about “Save the Trail” regardless of the outcome of the trial.

1) “Save the Trail” is hiding a serious conflict of interest.

Opponents of the Purple Line frequently assert that proponents have a conflict of interest – and in particular that they are mostly developers or paid by developers who will benefit financially from the Purple Line. And nearly all of us do have a conflict of interest of some kind. We expect advocates to disclose their major interests so we can better evaluate their positions. I have disclosed my affiliations and interests at About the author. The advocacy organization Purple Line NOW! lists its board member affiliations and its major fundraising event sponsors on its website.

Ajay Bhatt is the president of Save the Trail. Mr. Bhatt is attempting to enclose part of the publicly owned Georgetown Branch r.o.w. for his own private use. If he succeeds, the value of his home will increase substantually. He has a very strong and direct financial and personal interest in stopping the Purple Line that has nothing to do with the merits of the project. Mr. Bhatt has every right to speak out about the Purple Line, but “Save the Trail” should disclose that their president and chief spokesman has this unusually strong conflict of interest. There is nothing on the “Save the Trail” website or Facebook page to make this important disclosure.

2) “Save the Trail” is pursuing an agenda very different from “saving” trees, park or trail.

“Friends” of parks or trails typically give to their favored park or trail, not take. “Save the Trail” publicly asserts the Georgetown Branch corridor is a precious and unique park-like public space that should be cherished and shared by the public. Yet we have the president of this so-called friends of the trail group attempting to take a significant chunk of the Georgetown Branch rignt-of-way out of public use as a park or trail, and convert it into an extension of his own very private back yard.

This is no way to treat a park!

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming trial, this case shows us a lot about “Save the Trail”.

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