Lawyer: Subpoenas for Catonsville project records call development process into question

Community association protests planned Southwest Physicians Pavilion before hearing

August 23, 2012|By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

The lawyer for a Catonsville community association tried unsuccessfully again Thursday to delay a Baltimore County hearing on a proposed medical office building, saying state prosecutors' requests for information on the project have raised questions about the county's development process.

Attorney J. Carroll Holzer, representing the Kenwood Gardens Condominium Association, called the situation unprecedented as the administrative hearing opened. His clients oppose construction of the Southwest Physicians Pavilion planned by Whalen Properties. Last week, the Office of the Maryland State Prosecutor subpoenaed eight county agencies for records on the project, but the office has declined to say why it is seeking the information.

Holzer said state prosecutors had essentially called into question "the integrity of this development process" by issuing subpoenas.

"Proceeding today will deny the citizens of their due process right," he told Administrative Law Judge John E. Beverungen.

Earlier this week, Beverungen had turned down a written request from Holzer to postpone the hearing, saying the subpoenas weren't relevant to the issues he would consider during the hearing. The judge repeated his stance Thursday, again declining the motion to delay.

"It's unclear at this point who's being investigated," Beverungen said. "I have no idea. … None of us do."

Holzer added that he wanted the delay in part because the inquiry has cast doubts on the county review of the project, which Whalen Properties wants to build on a 2.5-acre site next to the Beltway.

"There are fine people that work in this county," Holzer said. "I don't like them being under attack at this point, or under suspicion."

Holzer said the mystery surrounding the case made it harder for him to prepare for cross-examination of witnesses, which include county staffers who reviewed the project.

The state prosecutor's office investigates cases of misconduct by public officials, election law violations and public corruption, among other things.

Deborah C. Dopkin, the attorney for Whalen Properties, said delaying the hearing would be speculative and that a postponement "would only cast a further pall" on the review process.

Holzer also told the judge he was concerned that it is unclear which records the subpoenas sought, saying he would like to know more specifics about what state prosecutors are examining.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's administration declined last week to release the subpoenas, saying they are sealed court documents. On Thursday, county officials denied a Public Information Act request by The Baltimore Sun for the documents, writing that state law allowed them to withhold certain records of investigations "if disclosure of the [documents] would be contrary to the public interest."

Beverungen will consider whether to approve Whalen Properties' proposal. The project is known as a "planned unit development," in which developers can seek exemptions to certain zoning rules.

As part of the planned unit development process, the County Council last year approved a resolution by County Councilman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, to authorize review of the project.

The developer has requested exceptions to regulations on issues such as setbacks and signage. For instance, the firm plans to build the facility 60 feet from a residential property line, even though regulations require state-licensed medical facilities to be at least 750 feet away.

About a dozen community members protested outside the county building before the hearing. Their concerns include traffic, noise, light from the signs on the building, and the project's effect on their property values.

The project would be a four-story medical office building over a three-story parking garage.

Gail Dawson, vice president of the condominium association, said the group felt county officials hadn't listened to the community's reservations.

"They rubber-stamped everything," she said. "We're not being heard."

On Thursday morning, the judge heard from witnesses, including representatives of the county's planning and environmental departments. The hearing is scheduled to resume Friday morning and is expected to continue for several more days.

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