New step added to gain access to Turf Valley files

Critics call Freedom of Information requirement unfair

officials say protection is needed

August 27, 2006|By A Sun Reporter

The battle over the planned expansion of Turf Valley is being fought on so many fronts that sometimes it's hard to keep them straight.

And like virtually every other issue related to the luxury development, the latest one has separated the parties diametrically.

Opponents of the development accuse the county of trying to thwart them by throwing up unreasonable obstacles to access to public information. County officials, on the other hand, say they are simply being prudent since a lawsuit has been filed against them and the vast record on Turf Valley must be protected.

The latest controversy was ignited by the county's decision last week to require people seeking information on Turf Valley or wishing to review the record to file a formal Freedom of Information request.

County officials acknowledge that the order is unusual, but they say two factors prompted it. First is the lawsuit opponents filed against the Department of Planning and Zoning and the Planning Board, which approved the expansion of Turf Valley. Second, they say the county has been inundated with questions and requests to see all or part of the record, which has become unreasonably time-consuming and has prevented some employees from performing other responsibilities.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said the county's Office of Law recommended the more formal process because the case is being contested in court and "we want everyone to have the same facts."

"It's not that people can't get information," she added. "They will still get what they want. We're just trying to control [the process] so that everyone gets the same thing."

Paul T. Johnson, deputy county solicitor, said that because the case is before a Circuit Court judge, "there was a desire that there wasn't [privileged] attorney-client information" being divulged.

One of the opponents of the development, Marc Norman, said, "I am personally very disappointed that the county has seen fit to treat people like this. It is not right."

The policy, he said, "is a violation of the [county] charter. I can't understand how they can try to do this. It's completely unprecedented in the county."

In an e-mail to McLaughlin on Wednesday, Norman asked her to rescind the policy, which, he said, "restricts public access" to the department's files on Turf Valley.

Johnson also said there has been a "plethora of requests for information and it became scattered, and different people were responding. ... It is very time-consuming and it can get disorganized. They basically want you to drop whatever you're doing."

He said the public "99 out of 100 times will get all the information we have" on the development in western Ellicott City.

The opponents are fighting the planned expansion of Turf Valley on multiple levels. The first is through the lawsuit, which challenges the legality of the county's regulations as well as the Planning Board's approval of the developer's fourth comprehensive sketch plan.

They also have asked the Planning Board to reconsider its decision and have requested a hearing before the Board of Appeals.

The Planning Board in March approved the plans by the developer, Mangione Family Enterprises, that expanded Turf Valley to about 808 acres by adding 119.7 acres. That allows an additional 239 housing units to be built, or a total of 1,618. It also protected environmentally sensitive land and improved traffic flow with the realignment of Resort Road. And the plan permanently fixed the location of nine golf course holes, which will serve as buffers for the homes and free land in the multiuse area for development.

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