Effort to stop builder fails

Injunction refused as developer appeals suit against county

School waivers at issue

March 23, 2001|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

An Anne Arundel County judge rebuffed a bid by the county government yesterday to block construction of a 10-home project in a dispute over its practice of trading development permission for payments toward new schools.

Circuit Judge Ronald A. Silkworth denied the county's request for an injunction that would have barred its staff from issuing building permits to William Charles Lawson, president of Arundel Custom Homes, for his Cape St. Claire project while his lawsuit against the county is on appeal.

The injunction also would have put him in a financial squeeze.

The developer's lawyer, John R. Greiber Jr., called it "financial blackmail" and accused the county of retaliating against his client for his involvement in the lawsuit against the county's practice of trading development waivers in exchange for money and land.

County officials disputed the "blackmail" allegation, saying they were trying to prevent the developer from backing out of his pact to pay $38,000 toward the cost of new schools if he wins on appeal. They said that if he is allowed to build and then wins the lawsuit, he will have circumvented county law and contributed to overcrowded classrooms.

Because schools in the area are considered overcrowded and relief is several years off, new residential development is blocked. But Lawson's proposal had received approval under the previous county administration of John G. Gary, and he paid about $38,000 to receive a waiver for the small subdivision.

County Executive Janet S. Owens has not granted new school waivers.

Lawson joined a lawsuit filed in September by developer Warren "Cookie" Halle that claimed waiver agreements were unconstitutional. They sought refunds. Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Philip T. Caroom dismissed their claim last month, and Halle and Lawson have appealed.

Arundel Custom Homes spent $396,000 on roadwork, water, electricity and other infrastructure and was ready to start building six of the houses when county officials changed their minds Wednesday about giving him building permits, Lawson said, adding that half of that was spent after he joined the lawsuit against the county last fall.

"They let us widen the road, their road," Lawson said. "Obviously, we have a dispute with the county with these fees. But for the county to let us continue along after this litigation had been filed, and then [Wednesday] say they want to stop us, was wrong."

Officials said they did not know why they did not seek an injunction several months ago, immediately after Arundel Custom Homes joined a lawsuit against the county seeking the return of its $38,000.

Assistant County Attorney Hamilton F. Tyler said the county was trying to protect its own and public interests in controlling class sizes.

"The county does not want homes going in where the county does not have school capacity to educate those children," Tyler told the judge.

Silkworth said he would not speculate on the outcome of the developer's case that is on appeal or, absent the county's formula for enrollment projections, on how many students 10 homes might add to crowded Cape St. Claire schools.

"I do not believe the county has met its burden of proof," Silkworth said in denying the government's injunction request. In contrast, the judge said, "there would be substantial harm to the developer is this project stops" for a year or more during the appeal.

Tyler said he did not know whether the county would appeal Silkworth's decision.

Lawson said the permits would be picked up first thing today.

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