Cost of lawsuits exceeds $121,000

Legal fees accumulate as government faces 11 cases on growth freeze

July 11, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Land-use lawyers and developers predicted lawsuits would follow if the Carroll County commissioners imposed a yearlong freeze on residential development.

But the county commissioners decided to follow through on their campaign promise to slow growth. The result: nearly a dozen lawsuits began deluging the county attorney's mailbox soon after the freeze was imposed in June 2003. As lawsuits mounted, so did legal bills from an outside law firm hired to handle the volume of litigation.

The tab through May: $121,811.68.

Or on average $12,181.17 per case, representing 10 of 11 lawsuits that were filed.

The county paid an additional $24,448.21 in consulting fees to Stanley D. Abrams, a prominent Maryland land-use lawyer and a partner in Abrams, West & Storm P.C., the Bethesda firm hired to manage the lawsuits. The invoices from the Bethesda firm were obtained by a request through the Maryland Public Information Act.

"That sure would buy a teacher for a year," said James Harris, managing member of JFJME Family LLC, the first developer to file suit against the county, of the six-figure sum.

The $121,811.68 paid to Abrams, West & Storm covers the law firm's work on 10 cases, including writing briefs and motions, presenting oral arguments at hearings, conducting research and preparing appellate briefs.

The county generally paid an hourly charge of about $175.

The $24,448.21 in additional legal fees covered more than 100 hours of consulting work involving the county's moratorium on residential growth, a freeze on most commercial development on land zoned for industrial use and an amendment to the residential freeze allowing for an economic hardship exemption.

Although the yearlong residential freeze expired last month and the county commissioners recently adopted stricter growth regulations, the legal battle challenging the freeze continues.

The cost to defend the county's moratorium is expected to escalate as nine lawsuits wind through the state appeals system, including three scheduled to be argued before the Maryland Court of Appeals in fall. Two more lawsuits are pending in Carroll County Circuit Court.

"Litigation generally is a very expensive exercise," said David Bowersox, a Westminster land-use lawyer representing three developers in five separate lawsuits. "This kind of litigation, with some of the complexities it has, is likewise a very expensive exercise. I'm not surprised at the amount of attorney fees. I would not be surprised if the number had been higher."

While the total price tag of $146,259.89 may cause some taxpayers to question the expense at a time when county coffers are tight, the commissioners say it would have cost the county even more money had rampant growth continued unchecked.

"It sounds like a lot of money until you think about the cost of not doing anything about the growth situation," Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said. "All our cases are on appeal. If we win them, it's not the county commissioners running up the bill, but the developers running up the bill.

"The taxpayers are paying $146,000 to make sure that they don't have to pay an unfair share of future growth," Minnich added.

As the fastest-growing county in the region, with a population of about 163,000, Carroll has been experiencing growing pains in the last decade. Residents have long complained that loosely controlled growth has outpaced the county's ability to provide adequate schools, roads, emergency services and water and sewer service.

In June 2003, Commissioners Julia Walsh Gouge, Perry L. Jones Jr. and Minnich decided to halt the processing of all development proposals for a year, while the county re-evaluated its growth policies.

The moratorium interrupted about 90 projects -- totaling 1,700 lots -- in various stages of review.

"When we went into the whole process, we knew it would probably be something we'd have to fight in court," Gouge said. "The most important thing is it was something we were doing because Carroll Countians asked us to."

Gouge, an incumbent commissioner, ran in 2002 with Jones and Minnich on a platform to slow development.

Six months later, the three officials imposed the moratorium so county planners could find ways to better manage residential growth and make sure the county has enough money to pay for county services.

"What we may have accomplished is saving millions and millions of dollars," she said. "The bottom line is if we don't have the facilities, we are cheating the people who live here and the people who came here."

But the response from developers was a series of lawsuits.

They filed 11 lawsuits challenging the freeze. In nine of the cases, a Carroll County circuit judge granted the developers temporary relief from the freeze, forcing the county to resume processing their plans.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.