J. Carroll Holzer has trampled through Baltimore County's garden of zoning and development regulations for more than 12 years, earning his living as a lawyer and growing a reputation for kicking dirt in the faces of developers and bureaucrats.
He loses many more cases than he wins, but clients don't seem to mind because Mr. Holzer has chosen a specialty that few attorneys want to touch -- representing community groups in land use battles.
"It gives me a sense of completeness to take a case no one else wants, knowing all the while you're fighting an uphill battle," he says. "It makes victory, when it comes, much sweeter."
Community groups see Mr. Holzer as a white knight to rescue them from heavy-handed bureaucrats and powerful developers. Opposing lawyers acknowledge Mr. Holzer as a worthy adversary, but also view him as an irritant, and at times a quixotic presence on their battlefield.
Developers like Stephen R. Smith see him as "an impediment to progress."
"The way Carroll Holzer approaches the development process in Baltimore County is to delay and appeal to the ends of the earth," said Mr. Smith, president of the Gaylord Brooks Realty Co.
But there is general agreement that Mr. Holzer, who has been involved in more than 600 cases, has had a huge impact on the way business is done in the county.
That impact in not measured by the number of major developments Mr. Holzer and his community clients have stopped dead in their tracks. Rather, it is the fact he has given residents the legal muscle and voice they rarely had before in the development process. And he has forced developers and bureaucrats to think twice about cutting corners in development and zoning regulations.
"The whole question of community input into the development process owes a tremendous amount to Carroll Holzer," said P. David Fields, head of the county's Community Conservation Program.
"Carroll has given us a voice and made it possible for community groups to be taken seriously," said Margaret H. Worrall, past president of the Valleys Planning Council, a land preservation organization.
Mr. Holzer, a 56-year-old Ruxton resident, tailored his practice to make his services more affordable to community groups. His clients act as his paralegals, getting documents or finding expert witnesses.
"In that way, my clients become very familiar with development and zoning regulations," Mr. Holzer said. "We become partners."
A typical zoning case taken from the local level through the state Court of Special Appeals could cost a community $20,000 -- including Mr. Holzer's fee, payment of expert witnesses and printing of transcripts and briefs. The money is usually paid in stages, raised by communities through such endeavors as bake sales and wine-tasting parties or from membership fees.
Mr. Holzer's reputation in Baltimore County has brought him cases in other areas. He has won victories in cases involving rubble landfills in Prince George's County and land use matters in Howard and Harford counties.
In historic Glyndon, a developer wanted to build a 40-unit townhouse project known as Glyndon Garth near Hanover Pike and Butler Road. But vehement community opposition and Mr. Holzer's efforts resulted in the development plan's rejection -- the first major residential project to be denied under Baltimore County's new development review process.
"It's only fair that the community has someone like Carroll to balance the playing field," said Newton A. Williams, a longtime attorney for development interests. "It brings out the best in the process."
"I respect his legal ability in trying to accomplish something contrary to what I'm trying to accomplish," said Henry R. Lord, a lawyer with Piper and Marbury who represented United Parcel Service in a long-running case pursued by Mr. Holzer.
Mr. Holzer has been battling in that case since 1987, contending on behalf of Sparks community leaders that the county mistakenly allowed UPS to build a trucking terminal in Loveton Industrial Park.
The county zoning commissioner viewed the project as a warehouse, a permitted use in an industrial zone -- not a trucking terminal that requires a special zoning approval and a public hearing.
Mr. Holzer won victories in the Circuit Court and Court of Special Appeals -- only to lose the most recent skirmish in February on a procedural issue in the state Court of Appeals.
The challenge that drives him, Mr. Holzer said, is winning one for the little guy. "When you buck the tide, when you don't have the law or the rules on your side and you still figure out a way to win, it makes up for the money you're not getting by representing the other side."
Mr. Holzer is not a bombastic attorney who likes to put on a show. Rather, he employs a low-key tenacity. He speaks with a slightly nasal Baltimore accent that catches opposing witnesses off guard. He is unrelenting in his presentation of a case, yet willing to embrace compromise to avoid all-out war.