SANDY SPRING, Md. (WUSA9) -- There was bitterness outside the funeral for 92-year-old Robert Awkard Wednesday as friends and family said the descendant of freed slaves died before seeing justice in a case they believe denied Awkard and others in this historic African American community their property rights.
"It was a tragedy that he died without justice," said Judy Penny who had been helping her elderly aunt, Awkard and others battle the Montgomery County Planning Board and the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission over the existence of an historic property access called Farm Road.
Awkard was among a group of at least 8 African American property owners who believe the approval of an allegedly dirty development application more than a decade ago allowed developers to build a subdivision directly on top of Farm Road, cutting off access to land that was settled by freed slaves and passed down through generations to their families.
The access dispute has rendered the families' properties virtually worthless, as upscale subdivisions have sprouted all around them, the owners say.
Awkard died Thursday after a long illness.
Parts of the road connecting to a public street still exist, but Montgomery's Planning Board continues to refuse to recognize it as a permanent legal access, despite announcing in July they would issue addresses to the landowners after being pressured by Maryland's Legislative Black Caucus.
Hearings were called after WUSA9's reporting on the issue.
Due to illness Awkard gave testimony on an emotion-provoking video posted to YouTube before he died. "I just hope that I can see it open while I am living," he gasped.
Lawsuits by landowners have not been successful. An appeal is now pending at Maryland's Court of Appeals.
Even so, the Montgomery County Planning Board has appointed and independent counsel to investigate 2007 claims by a former County Council legislative aide that documents submitted during the development approval process were "intentionally misleading."
The claims were made in one of the lawsuits that was dismissed.
State tax records show Farm Road on official maps as far back as the 1890's and it is referenced on the deeds of at least 20 properties. But after the approval of the nearby Dellabrooke subdivision, maps were amended to erase the road, and planning officials refused to grant landowners addresses claiming they could not prove access to a public road.
In October, Montgomery County's Planning Board objected to a state proposal to put the road back on its tax map despite its decision to issue addresses.
In a letter to state officials the Planning Board's top lawyer wrote that the decision "...specifically did not recognize the existence of Farm Road."
Instead, the Planning Board says it is relying on an agreement by landowners granting permission to cross each other's land.
Meanwhile, the property owners are demanding a meeting with Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, who is a candidate for governor. Gansler's office has been accused of dropping an investigation into the Farm Road matter, a charge he strongly denies.
In email Wednesday, Gansler said a meeting with property owners would inappropriately interfere with the local land use process and would not be in the best interest of landowners.