Planet Aid sues Baltimore County over collection bin ordinance

Planet Aid, whose yellow clothing-collection bins are found around the region, is suing Baltimore County in federal court over regulations approved by the County Council this summer.

The new rules require permits for charity collections bins and spell out where they can be placed. But Planet Aid, which collects used clothing and shoes, says code enforcement officers started citing bins before the regulations took effect — and gave no opportunity to obtain permits.

“The County does not have application forms or a permitting process in place,” an attorney for the organization wrote last month to County Attorney Mike Field after Planet Aid representatives tried to apply for permits.

“As a result of the actions taken by the County, Planet Aid is effectively barred from operating donation bins in [Baltimore] County,” wrote the group’s attorney, Daniel P. Dalton of Detroit.

Dalton’s letter was included in court filings in a lawsuit filed last month in U.S. District Court. He wrote that county code enforcement officers had fined Planet Aid at 10 separate sites for $1,000 each.

The county dismissed the tickets, but code enforcement officers still demanded that bins be removed, according to Planet Aid’s lawsuit. The lawsuit asks the court to stop the county from enforcing the ordinance “to the extent that it prevents [Planet Aid] from operating donations bins in the County.” The suit also seek unspecified damages.

Planet Aid, which has national headquarters in Elkridge, solicits donations for used clothing and shoes in bins placed outside shopping centers and other locations. It had 260 bins in the county at the time the council approved the bill, according to the lawsuit.

The group said it stands to lose 30,000 pounds of clothes weekly if it cannot operate in the county, which would “have a devastating impact” on its mission. The organization says the solicitation of charitable donations is a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment.

Planet Aid sells the clothing it collects to markets throughout the world to support development programs in Latin America, Africa and Asia, and to pay for overhead expenses, according to the lawsuit. Dalton has previously represented Planet Aid and other groups in legal challenges to bin regulations and bans in other states.

On Nov. 27, Baltimore County agreed to stop enforcing the ordinance for 90 days in response to the lawsuit, court filings show. Field said he and the attorney for Planet Aid “agreed that we would try to work together through the issues” during the 90-day moratorium on enforcement.

County Council Chairman Tom Quirk introduced the bill regulating collection bins in July, and the legislation was discussed at a council work session on Aug. 1. No specific charities are named in the bill, and none were mentioned at the meeting. The measure was approved the following week.

Under the bill, collection bins can be placed at shopping centers, industrial park properties and gas stations.

Quirk said this week that he introduced the bill in response to citizen complaints. He said there were some “bad apples” among bin operators, while others were better. The measure wasn’t aimed at Planet Aid, he said.

“You’re getting a lot of these clothing bin companies that quite simply weren’t doing a good job collecting what people are donating,” Quirk said. “These bins were becoming unsightly.”

Linda Smith, former president of the Westgate Community Association in the Catonsville area, testified in favor of the bill. She said this week her neighborhood was frustrated with a bin where people where dumping junk. The bin was not affiliated with Planet Aid, she said. It had no label or contact information.

“We had no idea who they were, and that was the problem,” she said.

In a statement to The Sun, Planet Aid President Ester Neltrup said the organization supports “reasonable and effective regulation of textile collection bins.”

“When properly managed and maintained, bins provide a community service, making it easy for the public to drop off their unwanted items and thus saves resources from unnecessary disposal,” she said.

Planet Aid has come under scrutiny from a media organization. According to a report in Reveal — a news outlet of the journalism nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting — Planet Aid is among several U.S. nonprofits “that have been linked to a secretive Danish organization known as the Teachers Group.” Teachers Group leader Mogens Amdi Petersen is wanted by Danish authorities on embezzlement and tax evasion charges.

Neltrup said Planet Aid “has no organizational or financial connection with the Teachers Group or Amdi Peterson.”

In August, Planet Aid filed a federal libel lawsuit against Reveal and the Center for Investigative Reporting and two of its reporters over articles on Planet Aid. Amy Pyle, the center’s editor in chief, said the lawsuit is “without merit.”

She said the center’s reporting was truthful and based on Danish and U.S. court documents.

Planet Aid has an “F” rating from the watchdog group Charity Watch. Neltrup said the group has long disputed Charity Watch’s analysis.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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