Golf course foe battles legal experts over environmental permit

August 09, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

A Wilde Lake Village resident who opposes construction of a Columbia golf course has been persistent enough to land her challenge in a state administrative judge's hearing room, but she found rough going in her first foray into the legal world yesterday.

"It was really overwhelming," said Virginia H. Scott after the first day of the hearing pitting her against attorneys for the state Department of Natural Resources and the Columbia Association. "I feel like I've been parachuted into a foreign country where I don't know the language and don't know the customs."

Ms. Scott has challenged an environmental permit granted to the association by DNR that allows construction activity along the Little Patuxent River, permanent destruction of a 350-square-foot wetland and alterations to about 3 acres of other wetlands and wetland buffers.

The association is well under way with construction of the $5.2 million, 204-acre Fairway Hills Golf Course, which is being built just west of Route 29 and south of Route 108 along Columbia Road.

Administrative Law Judge Suzanne S. Wagner will issue a written decision within 90 days of the close of the hearing. The decision will be a recommendation to DNR, which could rescind the permit, modify it or stick with its original decision. At that point, either Ms. Scott or the association could appeal to Howard Circuit Court.

Though the hearing was good-natured, the mismatch in legal acumen became more apparent at day's end when Ms. Scott had difficulty determining whom she wants to call as witnesses when the hearing continues today. After deliberating 10 minutes with the judge and opposing attorneys, she decided that she'd testify rather than call any witnesses.

She told Ms. Wagner that she was "overwhelmed" by the volume of exhibits entered by the attorneys and that she felt "uncomfortable firing questions" at witnesses. She expressed frustration at the legal questioning process, calling it a "funny little dance."

Ms. Wagner told Ms. Scott that she will help her through the procedure, but wouldn't advise her. She reminded Ms. Scott, who was assisted during the hearing by her husband, Thomas, that she has presented a serious legal challenge that must be heard according to trial rules and court decorum.

"I was never looking for my day in court, but since this was the only venue available, I'm very grateful for the opportunity," Ms. Scott said after the hearing.

The hearing at the state Office of Administrative Hearings in Lutherville focused on two issues: Whether the application the association submitted to DNR's Water Resources Administration was complete, and whether the association performed an adequate analysis of alternative sites for the course that might have had less environmental impact.

Meredith E. Gibbs, an assistant state attorney general, argued that the natural resources agency not only followed its regulations in reviewing the application, but also "bent over backward" to address public concern about the controversial project. The agency's request for additional information from the association was a normal procedure, not a sign of an incomplete application, she said.

Ms. Gibbs and Deborah E. Jennings, a Piper & Marbury attorney representing the nonprofit association, both contended that the project's environmental impacts are relatively small and that the association planned the course to avoid sensitive areas. They both said the association made a "good faith" effort to investigate other sites for the course, but that none were ZTC available -- at least in Columbia -- that would meet the project's needs.

Ms. Scott, who lives in the Running Brook neighborhood adjacent to the planned course, argued that the association didn't sufficiently investigate an offer it received from a private developer to join with county government to build and operate a golf course on part of a 335-acre tract just north of Columbia.

Association construction manager Dennis Mattey said the potential for environmental impacts might be greater on the 335-acre Carroll property, adding that the association had not conducted an analysis or attempted to purchase the property.

The Columbia Council, which serves as the association's board of directors, decided not to pursue the option after a 45-day period in April 1993 because it couldn't work out a suitable financial and ownership arrangement with the county, said Mr. Mattey and Ms. Jennings.

Michael Slattery, the permit section chief for DNR's Nontidal Wetlands and Waterways division, said the agency found validity in the Columbia Association's contention that the Carroll site would not meet the project's purpose, partly because it was outside Columbia and would require a zoning change.

He said the agency uses a "sliding scale of rigor" in determining how much documentation an applicant must submit of its evaluation of alternative sites.

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