The legal system leaves the citizens standing

Comment

December 22, 1996|By Mike Burns

LEGAL STANDING. It's much beloved of lawyers, who delight in spending hours of time and thousands of dollars arguing whether a taxpayer should actually have the right to use the expensive court system to plead his case.

Judges don't have to listen to the merits of any dispute if they can find a loophole of "standing" to exclude the petitioner. Lawyers don't have to actually argue their case if they can find a way to disqualify their adversary on grounds that he has no "legal standing." It is also a convenient alibi for the losing attorney, who can claim she would have won had the court granted "standing."

Some would argue that legal standing is close to patriotism as the last refuge of scoundrels, whether they be incompetent or corrupt officials or bureaucrats unwilling to admit their errors.

The good citizens of Hampstead got a legal reminder this month.

The state Court of Special Appeals ruled they had no "standing" to appeal the decision of the town Planning and Zoning Commission that had approved a large subdivision.

That's 80 taxpaying citizens in a small town whose lives will most definitely be affected by the construction of 220 new homes in the North Carroll Farms IV subdivision. People whose public facilities, from roads to schools to water supplies, will be significantly impacted.

"Take a hike," said the state's appeals court, echoing the sentiments of Carroll Circuit Judge Raymond Beck, who first threw the citizens' case out the window. "What impudence to presume that you have the right to challenge the P&Z commission!"

Maryland's administrative law in this regard is particularly protective of officialdom, to the frequent detriment of the public good. It requires an appellant to prove that a government board's decision affects them "in a way different from that suffered by the public generally."

It is a ludicrous standard in practice, even if the lawyers in the legislature have found ample theoretical buttresses for its existence. Consider that a toxic waste dump is approved in your town. If you can't definitely show that you will suffer more damage than others in the vicinity, you have no case. If you're all suffering to the same degree, there's no right of appeal.

Unfortunately for the citizenry, the standard is often twisted by the courts to mean that one has to show a "unique" impact -- not just one "different" from most others.

Mr. Holland's kids

Steve Holland, a Hampstead town council member who was among the 80 citizens denied standing, felt he was affected differently, if not uniquely, from other residents.

"My son will never be in the situation where he isn't in portables [classrooms] most of the day, and in overcrowded classes, where some kids need to eat lunch at 10: 30 in the morning because the cafeteria is so crowded," he explained. With Spring Garden Elementary already 30 percent over capacity, the addition of so many new homes will only make matters worse for children in that school.

With two children in school, his situation is certainly different from Hampstead residents who do not have schoolchildren or children about to enter the schools. And he would appear to be different from those residents with children attending another school.

Thus his puzzlement when Judge James R. Eyler, the newest rookie on the appeals bench, wrote in the court opinion that "Mr. Holland acknowledged that the effect of the subdivision on the school would be no different for his children than for any other child."

Hampstead recognized the restraints on appeal of zoning decisions last year, enacting a law that allows any town taxpayer the right to appeal decisions to the Board of Zoning Appeals. It was a result of political revolution in the town, and the accession to power of a slow-growth majority.

The state appeals court said the 1995 town law could not be applied retroactively to P&Z decisions made in 1994. Without directly ruling on the 1995 town law, the court clung tenaciously to the "standing" standard of Maryland law. And that was the ball game.

There's a long and contentious history of plans for the North Carroll Farms IV housing development, and the Roberts Field subdivision in Hampstead that is also being built by the same developer, Martin K. P. Hill.

There are abundant arguments of fact and law on both sides of the growth issue. Schools may be overcrowded, and roads jammed in the town of 4,000, but whose responsibility is it to correct the problems? Can past approvals of developments be rescinded because of attitudinal changes? County actions and inactions greatly affect these development decisions, even though the municipality is supposed to govern itself.

The Town Council, in a bitterly divided vote, recently crafted a compromise with Mr. Hill on North Carroll Farms. The agreement trades building permit approvals for construction of infrastructure and a donation of open space lands.

And Mr. Holland and his neighbors were left standing on the outside, without any standing.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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