Court orders open debate on zoning Meetings to decide on subdivisions must be public, boards are told

September 06, 1997|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

In a case prompted by a proposed Baltimore County housing development, Maryland's highest court has ruled that local zoning and appeals boards must debate subdivision plans in public before deciding whether to approve them.

The decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals yesterday overturned a lower court ruling and reaffirmed the state legislature's intent to broaden the Open Meetings Law in 1991.

The court's ruling stems from a 1994 case in which the Baltimore County Board of Appeals refused to open deliberations on plans for a residential development on 172 acres near Blue Mount and Wesley Chapel roads.

The board, which hears appeals of county administrative decisions, debates zoning cases in public but has reviewed development plans in secret.

When the board approved the 33-home Wesley Chapel Woods development, neighbors filed suit, arguing that the closed deliberations violated the Open Meetings Law. That law had been amended in 1991 to include zoning actions and "other zoning matters."

The county tried to argue that development plans were not "zoning matters," but Baltimore County circuit Judge John F. Fader II sided with the residents.

His decision was overturned last summer by the Court of Special Appeals, Maryland's second-highest, which said requiring open discussion of development plans "would chill debate among members of zoning and licensing boards, would hamper the decision-making processes and would intrude upon sensitive land acquisition matters."

The Court of Appeals, after reviewing Baltimore County's development procedures and the legislature's debate on the Open Meeting Law amendments, ruled that the legislature intended discussions of development plans to be open.

Kathleen Bianco, administrator for the Baltimore County Board of Appeals, said the board had not seen the decision and did not know how how it might changes its operations.

J. Carroll Holzer, the lawyer representing the community, said the ruling makes it clear that the Baltimore County board and others in the state will have to open their deliberations.

"Any administrative body is going to have to adhere to this analysis," he said.

Meanwhile, the Wesley Chapel Woods development that prompted the ruling has been scaled back and is generally supported by the community.

Pub Date: 9/06/97

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