Case 110

Citizens for the Scenic Severn River Bridge, Inc. v. Skinner, 802 F. Supp. 1325 (D. Md. 1991), aff'd, 972 F.2d 338 (4th Cir. 1992).

A group of citizens and the city of Annapolis sought injunctive relief against the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) to prevent the replacement of a bridge across the Severn River. The bridge, adjacent to the United States Naval Academy‹a National Historic Landmark‹and a State park, is also close to the city's historic area. Plaintiffs based their allegations primarily on violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), as well as several other Federal regulations and State laws.

Plaintiffs' NEPA claim alleged that the Maryland SHA should have prepared an environmental impact statement (EIS) and that DOT should not have categorically excluded the project from the EIS requirement. DOT regulations include bridge replacements as categorical exclusions; however, plaintiffs argued that this particular project did not constitute a bridge replacement since the new bridge would differ from the original in its size, design, and site. 802 F. Supp. at 1333. The court found that even if these allegations were true, the project still fell within the bridge replacement categorical exclusion. Moreover, the court found that DOT had properly conditioned the exclusion, conducting a Section 4(f) study in accordance with the Transportation Act. Id. at 1330-31. The court stated that the study supported the initial finding of no impact and appropriately reconsidered the exclusion as the project was finalized. Id. at 1333.

With regard to the Section 4(f) claim, the court found that defendants had complied with Section 4(f), as they adequately considered how certain properties would be "used" by the project. The court examined the administrative record to determine whether there was "serious consideration of the appropriate factors" and declined to overturn the agency's decision because it had properly considered the necessary facts and came to reasonable conclusions. Id. at 1334. See also id. at 1333-37. The court also determined that the timing of the Section 4(f) statement was adequate‹even though it was prepared in the early stages of the project‹because the defendants had committed to a high level bridge by the time the statement was prepared. Additionally, the court noted that the proposed alternative would be continually reviewed. Id. at 1336.

In addressing plaintiffs' claim that defendants had violated NHPA, the court observed that the existing bridge had never been "recognized as protected under the NHPA." Thus, the court found that defendants were under no duty to consider the effects of the project. Id. at 1337. The court observed that the Maryland State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) had responded to defendants' inquiry, determining that the bridge was not eligible for the National Register. Even assuming the bridge was protected, the court stated, defendants had properly considered the bridge by documenting the decision, notifying the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and providing the Council with an opportunity to comment. In assessing the effect of the bridge replacement, the Maryland SHA had from the onset solicited the SHPO's view on various alternatives. Further, the SHPO had conducted an extensive review of the impact of the high bridge alternative, including on-site inspections and a traffic study. The SHPO made a conditional no adverse effect finding, provided that it would be consulted on design issues. The Council concurred in the finding. Based on these facts and the court's observation that NHPA "does not prohibit the replacement or even destruction of any protected property, only that their historical importance be considered," the court found defendants had adhered to NHPA's requirements. Id. at 1338.

Plaintiffs' arguments regarding violations of regulatory requirements were also unsuccessful. Plaintiffs alleged that the public hearing requirements in DOT regulations were not fulfilled by holding hearings early in the process. The court found that at the early public hearings DOT solicited the public's views and adopted a high bridge alternative in response. Because the debate at the public meeting focused on clearances between 60 and 80 feet, the court found that the 75-foot bridge was within the parameters the public contemplated. These early meetings had been highly publicized, and DOT had responded directly to the views of the public. Id. at 1340. Thus, the court found adequate public involvement.

As a final matter, the court considered defendants' equitable defenses to the action based on the principles of estoppel and laches. Defendants argued that the project had enjoyed active city support over several years. The court agreed with defendants and held that plaintiffs should be estopped from bringing the action at this late stage. The court similarly agreed with the laches defense, finding that plaintiffs had notice about the planned construction and were not diligent in bringing their suit earlier; defendants were thus prejudiced. Even assuming the cause of action arose only after project funds were appropriated in December 1990, a full year before the district court decided the case, the delay still considerably prejudiced defendants, according to the court.

The court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment and denied plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction.

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