Baltimore County board shuns public deliberation Appeals panel ignores state law

May 06, 1993|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Staff Writer

Baltimore County's powerful Board of Appeals says it will continue to deliberate zoning issues behind closed doors -- even though the Maryland's open-meetings law now says zoning decisions must be made in public.

Boards in other metropolitan jurisdictions have apparently been following the law, which was amended in 1991 and took effect July 1, 1992.

The new legislation specifically requires open deliberations by "any public body" considering a license or permit or any matter involving zoning exceptions, variances, clarifications or enforcement, or "any other zoning matter."

Neither William T. Hackett, chairman of the Board of Appeals, nor Stanley J. Schapiro, deputy county solicitor, would say yesterday why they felt that the law did not apply.

Mr. Hackett said it was "imperative that the board fully review the evidence in any case before it" and he said that could be done only through the private procedure it has always followed.

To do otherwise, Mr. Hackett said, would "be a horrible injustice."

"This is a vital issue to the board," he said.

Baltimore County's Board of Appeals has a wide-ranging mandate and hears appeals from any administrative decision, including those regarding zoning issues, liquor licenses and disputes over retirement benefits. While the board holds open hearings, it discusses the issues before it and votes in private. Mr. Hackett said the board has dealt with "hundreds" of cases in private since July 1.

The issue arose in a case before the board on expansion plans for Villa Julie College in the Green Spring Valley.

Last July, Zoning Commissioner Lawrence E. Schmidt granted the college a special exception to expand in an agricultural zone, but limited the ultimate size of the student population.

In seven days of hearings this spring, neighborhood opponents appealed the special exception allowing expansion, while the college appealed the limit on the size of its enrollment

Even before testimony began, Benjamin Bronstein, attorney for Villa Julie, moved to limit the issues the opponents of expansion could raise before the board. After hearing both sides, the board deliberated privately and made its ruling on the motion.

J. Carroll Holzer, attorney for the opponents, objected to the private deliberations before the board and has filed two complaints in Circuit Court contending that the private deliberations violated the state's open-meetings law.

Last week, the board sent out notices to both parties that it planned to hold a deliberation on the Villa Julie case on Tuesday.

"We told the parties that based on advice from the county law office, that we will continue the practice of deliberating in private," said Mr. Hackett.

Mr. Holzer said he will file another complaint with the court on the decision not to deliberate the merits of the Villa Julie case in the open.

The board has not been completely consistent on the issue. Just two weeks ago, it deliberated in public and reached a decision in a case involving a marina in eastern Baltimore County. By coincidence, Mr. Bronstein and Mr. Holzer were again opposing attorneys.

"In retrospect, that was a mistake," said Mr. Hackett. "It might now be used as a precedent for all other cases in the future."

Mr. Hackett said the marina case was "essentially uncontested" and was not nearly as complicated as the Villa Julie case. He added that the Villa Julie case was the first under which the issue of the open-meetings law was raised.

Mr. Bronstein said he would prefer that the board continue to deliberate and rule in private.

"This is not strictly an administrative hearing but a quasi-judicial one," said Mr. Bronstein. "Among the things the board has to deliberate on is the credibility of witnesses and that would make for a very uncomfortable public situation."

Mr. Holzer argued that the law clearly applies to the Board of Appeals. He said he never raised the issue earlier because "frankly, just before the Villa Julie case started, I happened to stumble onto the amended law by accident."

Jack Schwartz, chief counsel for opinions and advice in the Maryland attorney general's office, said that deliberations in adversarial, quasi-judicial hearings were once exempt from the open-meetings law.

But the amendments changed the law so that it does apply to hearings in which licenses, permits and zoning matters aree decided -- even if the hearing is quasi-judicial and adversarial .

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