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Kinship Community In Sandy Spring Continues Fight For Property Rights

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William P. Rounds says his property has been alongside Farm Road for more than 100 years.
Rebecca Sheir
William P. Rounds says his property has been alongside Farm Road for more than 100 years.

Some residents in Sandy Spring, a rural town just east of Olney, in Montgomery County, Md., have been tangled up in a legal dispute against the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission since 2006. The residents are part of a kinship community — an area settled by freed slaves after the Civil War. Under dispute is their property and why it doesn't have an address.

William P. Rounds, 72, says his property has been in his family since 1904. Initially, he says, he did have an address. "It's gone now! I have no idea why they would give me an address and then take it away," he says.

As Michael Sklaire, an attorney representing William Rounds, tells it, the whole Sandy Spring kerfuffle began back in the 1990s.

"In the mid-90s, some developments were created nearby," he explains. "During the time of the development, the surveys wiped out the main road that accessed these properties. There was a road called Farm Road that these folks used to get to and from town."

But now the county was saying Farm Road didn't exist, and if your property isn't on what the county deems a public road, then you can't have an address. If Rounds and his neighbors don't have addresses, "they can't build on the land, they can't get services, they can't get emergency services, they can't do anything with the property they're paying taxes on," Sklaire says.

"Obviously, the property is not worth much," he continues. "If you can't build on it, it's hard to sell it."

But when these residents approached the Park and Planning Commission, which oversees property in the county, "they were denied addresses, because the road no longer existed," says Sklaire.

Disappearing road

To be honest, when I visited William Rounds' property, I definitely walked on a road. It was kind of a challenge, since it was covered with fallen trees and leaves and rocks, but there was, indeed, a road. And if you look at the original property deeds of Rounds and his neighbors, you will see a "Farm Road" listed.

But if you ask Adrian Gardner, general counsel of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, he'll tell you those original property deeds simply aren't sufficient.

"Ancient deeds make references to property descriptions in a lot of different ways. Sometimes it's to a rock. Sometimes it's to an apple tree," he explains.

In other words, says Gardner, these references describe where property lines are supposed to exist, "but that doesn't establish who actually is entitled to use a right-of-way," or who can access a route — be it a path or track or road.

"Because the reality is, it is just not legally clear how all of these individuals have access to a public road," he says.

The case has bounced around a lot through the years. Now it's pending before Maryland's court of special appeals. And one of William Rounds' neighbors is especially eager to see the litigation draw to a close: 90-year-old Robert Awkard.

Holding on hope

When I met Robert Awkard, he walked slowly, talked slowly, and was breathing with help from an oxygen tank. He says his family had been using Farm Road ever since he was a young boy.

"I was two years old when I went round there with my grandmother and grandfather," he recalls.

And that road, he says, is the only right-of-way his family had.

"We would ride back and forth out the road to Sandy Spring Mill, to grind feed," he says. "So I know the road has been there."

So, no wonder he feels so strongly about getting Park and Planning to acknowledge Farm Road. Not only has the land there been an important part of his life, "but you pay taxes on it," he says. "And you don't have no say about it! You can't do what you want with it! It just don't make sense!"

Not long after I chatted with Robert Awkard, I was told his health took a turn for the worse, and he wound up in the hospital. But when we met, in spite of his physical frailty, he seemed hopeful.

"I know I probably won't live to see it. But I hope somewhere down the line it'll be straightened out," is what he said at the time.

And Adrian Gardner says he hopes that the "line" Awkard mentioned won't be too long.

"Our commission, the Park and Planning Commission, we're very sincere about the fact of trying to see if we can get through the details that would resolve this without further litigation," he says.

Standing on his property in Sandy Spring, William Rounds' says he believes resolving the dispute shouldn't be all that complicated. "All they gotta do is give us what we deserve, and what we have paid for all these years, over 100 years," he says. "I gotta accept what was on my paperwork, not someone else's! It was written in 1904."

And 109 years later, Rounds says he isn't giving up any time soon. Because for him, his land is his legacy — address or no address.

[Music: "It Might As Well Be Spring" by Unknown from Concord Jazz Compilations]

Photos: Sandy Spring


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