Mum's the word on big Kent Island project

Despite Gansler ruling, county officials fear legal action for speaking against development

May 23, 2007|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN REPORTER

When the state Board of Public Works considers a wetlands permit today for the largest development ever proposed for Kent Island, board members are unlikely to hear anything negative about the 1,350-unit project -- at least from local elected officials, who fear they'll wind up in court for speaking out.

That's in spite of a nonbinding legal opinion, released yesterday by Attorney General Douglas Gansler, which found that a 2003 settlement forbidding Queen Anne's County Commissioners from criticizing the project doesn't apply to testimony before state agencies.

The ban on criticizing the Four Season development, proposed by New Jersey-based K. Hovnanian Cos., applies only to the county board acting as a government body, the opinion says. But the settlement does not prevent individual commissioners from speaking, the opinion states.

Still, county officials say they worry that a 4-year-old legal settlement signed by a previous board prevents them from speaking freely.

"We are absolutely under threat of litigation, effectively gagged," Eric S. Wargotz, the county board's president, said yesterday. "We continue to be advised by our own attorney that the safest course is not to testify or take a position."

State Comptroller Peter Franchot, who sits on the public works board with Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and Gov. Martin O'Malley, urged Queen Anne's officials this week to attend today's board meeting.

The county agreement with the developer "in no way included state-level proceedings and does not restrict any individual commissioner from testifying," Franchot wrote in a letter to Wargotz.

On May 9, the public works board postponed a vote on a state wetlands permit that would allow construction of a bridge, a storm water management system and other infrastructure necessary for the development.

Key among four findings in the attorney general's opinion is that any court settlement applies only to the Board of County Commissioners as a government entity.

But the opinion ends with a caveat, cautioning that even if county officials speak out as individuals, the developer could contest the issue in circuit court or, perhaps ultimately, "an appellate court would determine the meaning of the Settlement Agreement."

John H. Zink III, an attorney for K. Havnanian, did not return phone calls yesterday.

Opponents say the project, which would be marketed as an "active seniors" over-55 community, would increase pollution in the Chester River and two small creeks. The site, on the island's eastern shore, is located about a mile off U.S. 50.

Board of Public Works members, including O'Malley, toured the still-rural site for nearly two hours Friday. Trailing were a contingent of reporters and photographers, as well as sign-carrying supporters and opponents of the project that has caused turmoil on Kent Island for nearly a decade.

County officials say they have not talked about their options, once the public works board approves or defeats the wetlands permit.

"If the permit is approved, then I guess everything moves along," said County Commissioner Carol R. Fordonski. "We have not even had time to review it. For the moment, it's the state's issue."

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