People's counsel plan drafted

September 19, 1994|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

The largest conservation group in Anne Arundel County has drafted a plan for a people's counsel to represent environmental and community concerns in land development issues.

"There's just such a big gap between the developer, who can afford the different fees and representation, and those of us who are part of community associations who can't afford that," said Jane Sinclair, zoning committee chairman of the Severn River Association. "The people's zoning counsel would act on the part of the public."

The association, a conglomeration of 113 community groups and about 560 individuals, has taken no position on whether the county should have a people's counsel, said President Stuart Morris. But it has invited lawyers who hold that position elsewhere to its meetings to explain how the office operates.

Baltimore, Harford and Prince Georges counties are the only ones in Maryland that pay for a lawyer and expert witnesses who can challenge developers' proposals and local zoning decisions and question whether environmental regulations are being properly enforced.

A people's counsel acts independently of local government and zoning authorities and may end up opposing them in court.

The Severn River Association has invited county officials, other organizations and its membership to hear Peter M. Zimmerman, people's counsel for Baltimore County, at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Tawes State Office Building in Annapolis.

The draft of the ordinance says the people's counsel would be appointed by the county executive. The executive and the County Council would name a seven-member advisory board to recommend to the people's counsel cases to pursue. The

arrangement is similar to the one in Harford County, where a part-time people's counsel handles about 40 cases a year.

"I do everything any private attorney would. The difference is I send my bills to the county, and the county pays me," said Robert F. Kahoe Jr., Harford County people's counsel for 10 years.

Mr. Kahoe said he is paid at about half the rate he would bill other clients, earning about $25,000 a year from the job. He accepts some cases, rejects other and tries to mediate the rest.

"I think it's a good idea," said Thomas J. Wohlgemuth, an Annapolis lawyer who has represented some south county communities in land-use cases. "I call them cake-sale cases. They have to put on cake sales to pay the attorney."

He said a people's counsel might take away some of his business, but the position also would create another review process in zoning matters. That alone might be an impetus for the parties to compromise, he said.

Cases a people's counsel could have reviewed in Anne Arundel County include the proposed 78,600-seat Washington Redskins stadium in Laurel.

Community organizations and environmental groups have complained that they often lack legal standing to challenge a developer's proposal. But Ms. Sinclair said a people's counsel automatically has standing.

In addition, only a few land-use lawyers and their experts are willing to work for community groups. If they do, they get reduced fees because the organizations can't afford to pay them more.

Community groups said they often hire a lawyer who is no match for a developer's experienced, specialized attorney. Ms. Sinclair said she did not know how much a people's counsel would cost.

"We just simply want to even up the score when we go into the appeals level," said James Martin, past president of the Severn River Association. "We need someone who is experienced, who can argue on an equal footing with developers."

An organization may find itself opposing not only the developer's legal team at a Board of Appeals hearing but also the county's attorney, Mr. Martin said.

When the association challenged optician Nicholas Codd's plan to build a home over a marsh this year, the county's attorney backed the developer's attorney in protesting the association's participation in the case. The Board of Appeals sided against the association, whose members were outraged.

Mr. Martin said the county sometimes oversteps its role and gives developers a boost.

"It is responsible for the county to defend its decision. It is irresponsible for them to take the posture of directly attacking the environmentalists and communities who are protesting," Mr. Martin said.

Whether the developer is right should be irrelevant, he said, because it should be up to the developer's attorneys to make their own case.

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