Couple say they rejected money

But developer denies pair's claim that he tried to buy support

Practice called legal

June 01, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

In his quest to win approval for a proposed warehouse in Elkridge, a Reisterstown developer might have gone further than hiring a good lawyer and sweet-talking the neighbors.

In a move that apparently is legal, a couple who opposes the project says the developer offered them $25,000 to support - or at least not object to - his warehouse plan before the Howard County Board of Appeals, which met about the project several weeks ago and is to meet again tonight.

"He called it `walkaway money,'" said Carol Martin, who with her husband, Peter Martin, lives next to the proposed warehouse on Cedar Avenue in Elkridge.

Mark L. Levy, general manager of Dorsey Rock LLC, denies offering the Martins - or anyone - money in exchange for not objecting at a public meeting.

"It's a lie, as far as I'm concerned," Levy said. "They're 110 percent completely erroneous and wrong. They can claim all they want, and I'd like to see them prove it."

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the county's department of planning and zoning, said he'd never heard of a case exactly like this before.

"I've heard of property owners negotiating with neighbors to compensate them for any potential damage," he said. When asked his opinion of that, he replied, "It depends how it's done." He said there's a big difference between compensating a homeowner for damage and attempting to buy silence.

A county lawyer said he doesn't think it's illegal for a developer to offer residents cash incentives.

"I've heard of that before," said Paul Johnson, deputy county solicitor for Howard County. "It happens." He said paying a government official would be a different story.

"Then it becomes a bribe, and that's illegal," he said.

Carol Martin said whether it's legal or not, she had a gut feeling it was wrong to accept the money to stay quiet.

"It doesn't feel right," she said. "It may be legal, but it's not the right thing to do."

Kevin Doyle, president of the Elkridge Community Association, agrees. He said he's never heard of any such offer but believes money in exchange for silence would "taint" the zoning process.

Levy also offered to buy the Martins' house for $250,000, Carol Martin said, but she and her husband declined. She said Levy would buy the house only if he won permission to build the warehouse, and there was no provision for a partial win.

The Martins said they'd heard the neighbors who live across the street from them, Jack and Adair Crosby, were negotiating with the developer.

"I really don't want to discuss it with anybody," said Adair Crosby, who denied that the developer offered them money to stay silent or to buy their home.

Jack Crosby said the developer did offer to buy their home but denied that they were offered money in exchange for support or silence. "No one's ever offered me any money to take sides with anybody," he said. He said he opposes the warehouse.

Incentives offered

It is not uncommon for developers to offer incentives to communities in exchange for their approval of a project.

Several years ago, a Jessup homeowner's group accepted a donation of at least $50,000 annually and a community center from a developer who wanted to build a rock quarry in their neighborhood.

And the developer seeking to build more than a thousand homes on the Iager farm in Fulton offered to create a $100,000 fund for two nearby community associations; residents rejected the offer.

But several land-use lawyers and other experts say it would be an extraordinary step for a developer to offer individual homeowners money in exchange for their support or non-objection at public meetings.

John J. Delaney, a lawyer in Silver Spring, said it is "preferable" if a developer earmarks money for community improvement projects.

Kathleen Skullney, a lawyer and executive director of Maryland Common Cause, a public interest group, said it is more common for developers to intimidate homeowners than to offer them money. She said it would be "uncitizenlike" for someone to accept the offer.

"It would be a shame, and probably more than a little cynical, for citizens to sell their legal rights, especially their legal rights to speak against something, if they are genuinely opposed to it," she said.

Robert S. Lynch, a land-use attorney in Bel Air, said such an offer would be "highly unusual" but he does not think it's unethical.

"I would say it's a free market, and developer and citizens have a right to negotiate," he said.

Carol Martin wants to know how that "right to negotiate" may be playing out before the Howard County Board of Appeals.

At the last board meeting, she eyed a letter of support from another couple in the neighborhood, Gary and Sheri Charnock.

`No foundation'

In a letter dated April 25, they called the project "a breath of fresh air."

When Martin asked the developer's lawyer, Howard L. Alderman, Jr., how much they had had to pay for the letter of support, Alderman cried "Objection!"

"I know that some people in the neighborhood were paid for support," she said.

"There's no foundation laid for such an extreme statement," Alderman said.

The board did not allow Martin to ask that question, but she said she may revisit the issue tonight during her testimony.

Sheri Charnock denies receiving money to write the letter of support.

Residents who oppose the project say it would destroy their peaceful neighborhood.

"It's not just a variance," said Carol Martin. "There's a bigger thing going on here. The neighborhood is in jeopardy."

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