Legal muscle sought to guard environment

March 08, 1995|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

Environmental advocates urged legislators yesterday to broaden citizens' rights to take legal action against projects that they believe threaten health or the environment.

In a hearing before the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, the advocates said more people should have the right to appeal state permits in court for everything from trash incinerators to golf courses.

"It merely allows citizens to have a voice," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Opponents, including a waste management company and office park developers, argued that the measure, Senate Bill 557, would lead to a torrent of litigation, including nuisance suits designed to kill construction projects.

The bill "will open a significant floodgate and will impair the ability of the business community to make decisions in a timely, cost-effective manner," said Ira C. Cooke, a lobbyist representing Wheelabrator Cleanwater Systems Inc., a New Hampshire-based waste management company.

Lobbyist Bryson Popham, who represents the National Association of Industrial Office Parks, said, "We view this not as a shield, but as a sword."

Under current law, citizens can sue to prevent the state from approving a project only if they live adjacent to the site and are more affected by the project than other residents.

The bill would loosen those requirements. Residents would not have to show they they were particularly more affected than anyone else. And they would have to live only in the same jurisdiction as the proposed project.

During yesterday's hearing, Mr. Frosh disputed the argument that his bill would spawn more lawsuits. He said that in the past two years, 22 requests have been made for state hearings to appeal permits issued by Maryland's two environmental agencies. During that same period, the agencies issued at least 12,000 permits, Mr. Frosh said.

"Senate Bill 557 will not throw sand in the gears of government," he said.

"The Sierra Club of Maryland does not have the resources to be in court at every turn," said Nancy Davis, legislative chair of the state chapter.

Mr. Cooke argued that the bill is vague and would allow people at one end of a county to sue to stop a project dozens of miles away that didn't necessarily affect them. "Garrett County's a big place," he said.

Political observers said yesterday that they expected the bill to pass the committee. Sen. Clarence W. Blount, who, as committee chairman, can make or break a bill, sounded supportive of the measure. "I'm really for leveling the playing ground," said the Baltimore Democrat, "and a bill like this makes sense to me in that regard."

The bill's future on the floor of the Senate is uncertain. Mr. Frosh said 20 of the Senate's 47 members are new and are unfamiliar with the issue.

A broader version of the bill died last year on the Senate floor by one vote, he said.

Steve Larsen, a lobbyist for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said the state's Department of Natural Resources and Department of the Environment have reviewed the current bill and think that it "is a little broader than we'd like to see it." But Mr. Larsen said the agencies would be willing to help amend the bill and find a compromise.

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