For Richard McQuaid, Beth Hannon and anyone else who has fought to block a Baltimore County developer's plans and lost, a bill to be considered by the County Council is like the shimmering promise of water in a desert.
For developers, their lawyers and county officials who would be affected, however, the bill may evoke the image of the smoke-darkened sky over Kuwait's ravaged landscape.
Specifically, Councilwoman Berchie Manley's bill would require that appeals of County Review Group approvals of new subdivisions be heard "de novo," or as a completely new case, when they are re-heard by the county Board of Appeals.
Currently, successful appeals are rare of CRG decisions on subdivisions. The county Board of Appeals can overrule a CRG decision only if it is proved to have been arbitrary, capricious or fraudulent.
The CRG is a county panel of one planning and one public works official that must, by law, conceptually approve all new developments that meet certain technical standards. It cannot rule based on neighbors' complaints about whether a planned development is compatible with the surrounding area, whether it looks good or other matters outside technical measures.
To be sure, proposed developments receive greater scrutiny by the CRG than they did when the county planning board granted routine approvals before the CRG was created in 1982.
However, CRG approvals are typically so final, with almost no chance of appeal, that citizens get frustrated in attempting to reverse them. Residents who were led to believe that the CRG system would provide them more say have found they have no more than they did a decade ago.
Councilwoman Manley's bill comes in the midst of a county government effort to reform the system to give citizens more say about what is built around them and to help speed approvals for non-controversial projects. County Executive Roger B. Hayden is considering the reform proposals now.
A second bill, authored by Councilman Charles A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-3rd, basically restates in law the current appeals practice, which was called into question by a recent Court of Special Appeals decision.
The County Council is to discuss both Manley's and Ruppersberger's bills at a work session tomorrow, and then vote on them next Monday night.
Manley said she wants to "give the people an opportunity to have meaningful input, the right to due process" and a record of testimony.
She said she doesn't believe the change will harm or slow the operation of the appeals board.
Board of Appeals Chairman William T. Hackett, however, predicted that hearings before his board would take days under Manley's bill, not hours, and that the end results probably would not change much.
He said the board held several de novo hearings when the CRG was created, and they took three to four days each because the board would have to re-hear the entire case. Such lengths would considerably slow the already ponderous board docket, he said.
County Planning Director P. David Fields said that Manley's bill would "cause tremendous confusion" and would "do away with the CRG, essentially." He said the administration would recommend that the council withhold action on her bill until its own CRG reforms are proposed later this spring.
G. Scott Barheight and Benjamin Bronstein, both development lawyers, claimed that Manley's bill, if approved, would dramatically increase the expense and duration of appeals cases, without increasing protection for citizens.
However, residents who have fought projects and an attorney who has represented citizens in fighting developments strongly disagree.
McQuaid, a north county retiree who led a fight against plans by Roger Hayden's former firm, George's Transfer, to develop its land next to Interstate 83, told the County Council recently that Manley's bill would rescue citizens from "10 years of abuse."
Beth Hannon recently lost another CRG battle over 80 proposed townhouses near her Glyndon home. She termed fighting CRG approvals "a very frustrating experience."
Attorney J. Carroll Holzer, a former county solicitor, mainly favors Manley's bill, but could support either hers or Ruppersberger's. He said the change would not cripple the development process, but would give citizens at least a fair chance to convince the board that county officials could be wrong about traffic, water runoff or sewerage capacity.