Project sparks name battle

Western Maryland developer, foes tussle over use of `Smart Growth'

August 31, 2006|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

What's in a name? Plenty, it seems, when it comes to invoking Smart Growth in an increasingly bitter debate over a major housing development proposed in the wooded mountains of Western Maryland.

The Columbia-based development firm seeking to build Terrapin Run, a 4,300-home planned community in eastern Allegany County, has applied to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to obtain exclusive use of the name "Citizens for Smart Growth in Allegany County."

That happens to be the handle used by a group of residents fighting the project, who have succeeded for the time being in tying the development up in court. They allege the firm's trademark filing represents "dirty tricks" aimed at squelching or at least confusing debate.

"We don't know if they would attempt to obtain our name and file a lawsuit against us for trademark infringement," said Dale Sams, spokesman for the Allegany residents' group. Or, he wondered, would the developer launch a "public relations campaign using our name to sort of muddy the water?"

Executives of the development firm would not discuss in detail why they applied for trademark control of the opposition group's name. They also have applied for exclusive rights to variations on the group's title, the name Terrapin Run and the identifying labels used by at least two other independent groups that have promoted general community discussion about growth in economically lagging Allegany.

While declining to spell out their intentions, the development firm's executives contend that their opponents have been misrepresenting what Smart Growth really is.

"I think they've captured the term `Smart Growth,' and I don't think what this crowd believes in is Smart Growth," said Michael Carnock, principal of PDC Inc., the firm that wants to build the recreation-oriented community along Scenic U.S. 40 between Hagerstown and Cumberland. Its 20-year build-out would include a horse stable, riding and hiking trails and a community shopping center on more than 1,000 acres near Green Ridge State Forest.

Carnock and his development director, Craig Leonard, said that neighboring residents opposed to their project live on 2- and 5-acre lots with individual wells and septic tanks. Such scattered housing, they contend, is the antithesis of Smart Growth, a term generally applied to dense, urban-style development in areas served by public water and sewer -- as they propose for Terrapin Run.

"Density is actually smarter than sprawl," said Leonard. "We believe Terrapin Run as it's proposed is smart growth."

Opponents have argued since the project surfaced last year that such a large, dense development is incompatible with the rural character of eastern Allegany, which is dominated by forests and farms and where ground- and surface water are relatively scarce. They contend that development should be concentrated in and around the aging cities of Cumberland and Frostburg.

An Allegany Circuit Court judge ruled in May that the county's zoning appeals board had erred in declaring Terrapin Run "in harmony with" the county's comprehensive development plan. The judge sent the project back to the local board for reconsideration, but opponents of Terrapin Run appealed the ruling, seeking to have the project reviewed under an even stricter standard than the judge called for. The development is essentially on hold pending a decision by the Court of Special Appeals in Annapolis. No date has been set for arguments in the case.

Another of the names the developer applied for is "Reality Check," a term used for growth "visioning" exercises held in Los Angeles, Washington, Maryland and elsewhere over the past four or five years under the sponsorship of the Urban Land Institute, a national development think tank in Washington.

The Western Maryland forum held in early June spawned the creation of a broad-based group called Allegany by Design, which has met twice since then to discuss the county's future. That's another name the developer has sought to trademark.

"I don't know what they are going to gain by this," Gerrit Knaap, head of the University of Maryland's National Center for Smart Growth Education and Research, said of the naming-rights move. "It's almost implausible to imagine it succeeding."

At least one legal expert agreed.

"If I used the name Citizens for Smart Growth, I can't imagine he would be able to obtain trademark rights because someone else has been using that name," said Lawrence Sung, who directs the intellectual property law program at the University of Maryland School of Law. "Trademarks are all about who has used the name first and the reputation and goodwill associated with that particular name."

It can cost as little as $275 to file an application to trademark a particular name, but it's no guarantee of getting exclusive rights to use it, said Sharon Marsh, a deputy commissioner in the federal trademark office.

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