People's Counsel Offers Free Zoning Help--for A Few

May 19, 1991|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff writer

In July 1989, a group of Churchville residents began rallying efforts to fight a 500-foot communications tower proposed near the Harford County Airpark.

A year later, a second group of residents near Monkton began organizing an offensive to defeat plans by Bell Atlantic Mobile Corp. to build a 280-foot communications tower near the historic My Ladys Manor.

As both cases proceeded through the county zoning review process,residents argued that the towers would conflict with the historic character of their communities, lower property values, and create health and safety hazards.

The Churchville residents received free legal representation by county People's Counsel Robert F. Kahoe Jr. in their fight against the tower proposed by the Lepczyk Family Limited Partnership.

Kahoe, a Bel Air attorney who has served as the People's Counsel for eight years, is now fighting Lepczyk in the state Courtof Special Appeals.

But the Monkton residents' request for Kahoe to take their case was turned down by the attorney and the seven-member People's Counsel Citizens Advisory Board, which assigns Kahoe to cases.

"How can they justify taking this one case and not the other," questioned Joanne C. Emkey, a citizens leading the effort against

the Monkton tower. "We didn't know what to do. I thought it would be (Kahoe's) responsibility."

While these cases appear similar, Kahoe said the decision to take the Churchville case and not the Monkton case came down to a judgment call.

The People's Counsel was established in 1976 to provide free representation for citizens in countyzoning cases.

Because it operates on a small budget and many of its cases are complex, Kahoe said he generally takes only cases that can be won.

He explained that the Churchville tower had a number of"red flags" -- particularly its proximity to the airpark -- that persuaded him and the advisory board to take the case.

"If we don't think there's a fair chance of winning, we're not going to get involved," said Kahoe, a 41-year-old Forest Hill resident.

Without the People's Counsel, the Monkton residents have been forced to go it alone, first filing appeals in Harford Circuit Court on their own behalf and now paying costly legal fees for a private attorney to handle their appeal.

The legal fees have totaled $600 so far and could cost another $2,500 if the case goes to the state courts or is sent back tothe county for further reviews, Emkey said.

Kahoe said he is limited in the number of cases he can accept as the People's Counsel because the service operates on a $21,000 budget.

Kahoe said he handles about 25 cases a year out of nearly 200 cases that are reviewed by the advisory board.

The People's Counsel received $21,000 in the 1990-1991 fiscal year from the county, plus $6,000 that was allocated to the agency half-way through the budget year, said County Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson. It is expected to receive $21,000 in 1991-1992.

"There is so much time and so many dollars," Wilson said. "We're always trying to decide the best way to allocate that.

"Clearly, we would like to see more done," he said, "but it is just not possible to do everything."

Kahoe noted that the People's Counsel operated on a $9,000 budget when he took the position in 1983.

Most of the money goes to Kahoe's fee and office supplies. Citizens are usually asked to pay experts to review cases and testify in court, Kahoe said.

Gregory A. Rapisarda, who served as the county Zoning Hearing Examiner from 1987 to 1989, said he believes the county should provide the People's Counsel with money to pay for the experts.

"Quite often, the People's Counsel was not given the ability to engage experts to refute the testimony of the applicant's experts," Rapisarda said. Rapisarda said he believes the People's Counsel plays a helpfulrole for citizens who often don't understand the county's zoning system and are unable to form a solid argument against requests for variances and special exceptions.

Harford and Baltimore counties are the only counties in metropolitan Baltimore to provide the service. Citizens in other Maryland counties must pay for legal challenges to zoning cases on their own.

The advisory board generally accepts cases that could have broad implications on the county, such as the Churchville tower or the Columbia Gas Transmission Corp. plan for a compressor station near Jarrettsville, Kahoe said.

The People's Counsel usually does not take cases involving dis

putes between neighbors over issues like yard setbacks, Kahoe said.

Richard Cockerham, chairman of the advisory board, said the group has given Kahoe a free hand in deciding what cases are handled.

"(Kahoe) makes his own decisions," said Cockerham, who has been on the advisory board for three years. "We advise to our feelings and the feelings in our community."

Wilson said the People's Counsel and the advisory board serves asa barometer for the county Zoning Hearing Examiner and the Board of Appeals, which is the County Council. If the People's Counsel does not take a case, the proposal has a strong chance of getting approval from the hearing examiner and the appeals board, he said.

Kahoe said the number of cases handled by the People's Counsel has not significantly increased in the last eight years, but the cases have become more complex and more closely contested.

This trend is seen in the number of cases going to court after the hearing examiner and the appeals board have ruled on them, Kahoe said. He noted that he has four cases, including the Churchville tower, in the state appeals courts.

"People are very willing to stand up and be heard," Kahoe said. "The rewards are much greater today and the consequences are greater."

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