Building proposals need not be debated Public discussion of plans isn't required, court says

June 28, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

A state appeals court ruled yesterday that local zoning boards and appeal boards are not required to debate subdivision plans in public before approving them.

The Court of Special Appeals ruled that Baltimore County's Board of Appeals did not have to meet in public before approving plans to build 33 homes in northeast Baltimore County in 1994.

The state's Open Meetings Law requires administrative bodies, such as county councils, school boards and zoning appeal boards, to advertise their sessions, to deliberate in public and to announce their decisions in public forums.

The state Open Meetings Law was amended in 1991 to include zoning actions and "other zoning matters" as covered under the act.

When the Baltimore County Board of Appeals declined to publicly discuss plans for residential development on a 172-acre tract near Blue Mount and Wesley Chapel roads before approving them Sept. 15, 1994, neighbors filed suit to reverse the approval.

At issue in the case was whether the legislature meant to include subdivision approvals when it added the phrase "other zoning matters" in the 1991 amendments.

The appeals court said in a published decision that its review of the legislative hearings on the amendment showed that the General Assembly meant to exclude subdivision approvals from the Open Meetings Law.

"The legislature did not intend the words 'zoning matter' to cover broadly all land use issues," Judge Ellen Hollander wrote for a unanimous, three-judge panel.

Requiring open forums for such approvals "would chill debate among members of zoning and licensing boards, would hamper the decision-making processes and would intrude upon sensitive land acquisition matters," Judge Hollander wrote in a 33-page ruling.

Yesterday's decision reverses a June 21, 1995, ruling by Baltimore County Circuit Judge John F. Fader II, who held development plan approvals are part of the zoning process and should be open under the state Open Meetings Law.

Judge Fader ruled after a lawsuit was filed by a neighbors who objected to a plan by Gaylord Brooks Realty Co. to build 33 single-family houses on the site, known as Wesley Chapel Woods.

The plan had been approved by Baltimore County hearing officer Lawrence E. Schmidt on July 7, 1994, and was approved by the Baltimore County Board of Appeals on Sept. 15, 1994.

Lawyers for Baltimore County appealed Judge Fader's ruling. Douglas Silber, an assistant county attorney, declined to comment on yesterday's decision.

The Baltimore County Board of Appeals hears appeals of county administrative decisions, including zoning issues, liquor licenses and disputes over retirement benefits. The board holds open hearings and issues written decisions, but has still discussed general issues and voted in closed sessions.

Pub Date: 6/28/96

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