Battles against developers often costly, unsuccessful

Groups that oppose even small proposals hit with large fees

April 23, 2001|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

What price the status quo?

In the Baltimore suburbs, it can cost as much as $200,000, and even then the forces of change might prevail. That's what one community group spent to wage a largely unsuccessful fight against a developer who wanted to bulldoze a historic farm to make room for a golf course.

Not all development battles cost that much. But suburban and rural homeowners have discovered that they need to spend thousands of dollars to wage credible challenges to deep-pocketed developers. And they have come up with creative ways of paying those costs.

At a recent hearing before the Baltimore County zoning commissioner, attorney J. Carroll Holzer introduced George Harman, president of the Hanover Road Association, as his "paralegal."

That's a bit of an exaggeration. But as president of the association, Harman has spent hours helping Holzer prepare arguments to scale down the size of the 2,000-seat building that Carroll Community Church wants to construct near the Baltimore County-Carroll County line.

If Harman hadn't done the legwork, the group's legal bills would have been significantly higher. He declined to say how much has been spent but acknowledged the amount is in the thousands of dollars.

"It's us against the big boys," said Holzer, a former county solicitor whose office is decorated with posters and bumper stickers from fights against an asphalt plant in Kent County, the U.S. Postal Service center in northern Baltimore County and a Wal-Mart in Owings Mills. "You're always fighting the county, and you're always fighting without a lot of resources."

In southern Anne Arundel County, residents trying to stop a Safeway supermarket from being built in Deale are using volunteer lawyers, public relations consultants, graphic artists and other professionals from the community.

Still, South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development has racked up $10,000 in legal bills, said Amanda Spake, the group's president.

Perhaps the most expensive development battle waged in recent years involved the Valleys Planning Council of northern Baltimore County. The group spent $200,000 in the late 1990s trying to prevent Hayfields Country Club from being built on a historic farm in Hunt Valley. Neighbors claimed the 474-acre project would cause environmental problems, including possible well contamination.

The council lost the fight, though restrictions were placed on the country club.

The council has gotten involved in an effort to defeat plans by AT&T to build a 150-foot cell phone tower on Bacon Hall Road in a rural historic district in Sparks. The group won the first round last year after a three-day hearing before the zoning commissioner. Legal bills have reached $8,000. But the telecommunications company has appealed the case to the county's board of appeals, which is likely to drive up the final cost.

"I'm guessing it's going to run $10,000 to $12,000," said Jack Dillon, executive director of the planning council.

The planning council, a well-established nonprofit group with many wealthy members, raises money by soliciting property owners who might be affected by proposed developments.

Less well-heeled groups raise money by staging bake sales or selling Christmas trees. Some cut costs by doing their research.

And some are forced to give up the fight. In Howard County, zoning hearings on the Maple Lawn Farms project, which will put 1,116 homes and more than 1 million square feet of commercial space on part of the Iager family turkey farm along Route 216, stretched over 31 days. The cost of transcripts alone was $13,000, said Robin Regner, administrative assistant to the county zoning board.

That was enough to stop opponents from taking their fight to court. "The cost is phenomenal," said Tom Durnoga, attorney for neighbors of the project.

Even battles against small developments can be costly.

The Greater Kingsville Civic Association, fearing well contamination, spent more than $10,000 in legal fees contesting plans for a Royal Farms store and gas station near a small housing development in Fork in northeastern Baltimore County.

Carol Shaw, a homeowner and association member, helped keep costs down by compiling market research data showing the area was saturated with such businesses. The association recently prevailed in Circuit Court after fights before the zoning commissioner and the board of appeals.

Holzer, who also represents the Kingsville group, said he tries to help civic organizations spend money wisely by advising them to do their own research and by charging an hourly fee of $100, about half of what zoning lawyers charge developers.

"When you win, it's very satisfying," said Holzer, who has spent 20 years representing community organizations. "We rely on the county and the developers making mistakes, and we use it against them."

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