County seeks dismissal of suit over land-use decisions

April 05, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Lawyers for Howard County used strong language in seeking dismissal of what they characterized as a "frivolous" federal suit filed by residents who say the county's land-use decision process is unconstitutional.

The exchange is the latest chapter in the continuing development wars in the prosperous, fast-growing county.

"This lawsuit is merely the chosen vehicle for a handful of residents to vent their frustration over three land-use projects in Howard County," County Solicitor Margaret Ann Nolan argued in the county's March 31 reply to the suit. She said residents are angry over development at Turf Valley, changes at the Seiling Industrial Park in Columbia, where a Wegmans store is to be built, and development of the Cattail Creek residential community in the western county.

Paul Kendall, Frank Martin and 11 other plaintiffs filed the 124-page suit, which claims the county has violated the county charter for years by using council resolutions to make land-use decisions instead of using council bills, which may be taken to referendum. They want the federal courts to void a number of county laws.

The suit, filed in February, also seeks federal supervision of county land-use decisions, and $10 million in damages. The suit names as defendants the county government, along with County Executive Ken Ulman, former County Solicitor Barbara Cook and several county department heads.

Attorney Susan B. Gray represents several plaintiffs who live at Cattail Creek. Martin has for years criticized plans to add more than 1,300 new homes, offices and stores to Turf Valley, an 809-acre hotel and golf club in western Ellicott City.

The county, in its answer to the suit, says the complaint is "simply a misguided attempt to compel this court to impose Kendall/Martin's idiosyncratic interpretation of the scope of the referendum power on county government."

"Plaintiffs now offer a patchwork quilt of decades old, generalized grievances pertaining to county laws, procedures and policies. ... Simply put, there is no colorable claim of any constitutional violation, and the suit is frivolous on that basis alone," the reply said.

Nolan points to four primary reasons that the suit should be thrown out:

* There is no constitutionally guaranteed right to referendum.

* There is no specific injury to any of the residents who filed the suit, just generalized claims.

* Federal courts should stay out of local land-use decisions governed by state-created county charter.

* All the individuals named personally as defendants are current or former county officials protected by the doctrine of qualified immunity, which means they can't be sued for doing their jobs.

Gray and Kendall said they were not surprised or dissuaded by the county's reply. They vowed the suit will go on, perhaps for years.

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