People seeking standing in a recent Howard County Board of Appeals case about a proposed gas station on Centre Park Drive in Columbia are accusing the board of violating the Maryland Open Meetings Act for holding an unannounced work session after a hearing on Sept. 11.
Bill Erskine, the attorney for those seeking standing in the gas station case, wrote a letter to the board stating that the work session "was in fact intended to deprive the public as well as the parties to this instant case of the notice required under the Maryland Open Meetings Act."
In January 2012, operators of the Giant Food store on Centre Park Drive requested a conditional use to open a gas station in the Columbia Palace Plaza parking lot. Objections were raised by Sean Maumood, who owns a gas station across the street, as well as three neighborhood residents concerned about a rise in traffic. The county hearing examiner approved the request, and the case moved to the Board of Appeals.
According to documents provided by Howard County Independent Business Association Executive Director Chris Alleva, who aided the gas station owner and residents in their objection, the unscheduled Sept. 11 work session was held after the close of an unrelated hearing.
Alleva, who attended the hearing, said he and his lawyer packed up and left at the end, only to find out later a work session followed the same night.
The Maryland Open Meetings Act requires "reasonable or advance notice" in writing for government meetings held in closed or open session.
The work session lasted 12 minutes, according to minutes from the prior meeting.
Alleva and Erskine were subsequently notified by the board's administrative assistant that a work session to discuss standing in the gas station case had been scheduled for Oct. 3.
The board already voted July 15 to approve standing for Maumood and deny the request by Giant for a conditional use to build the gas station.
"They voted already," Alleva said. "For them to do this" – revisit who has standing in the case – "is highly irregular."
At the hearing on July 15, opponents argued, and some board members agreed, that the gas station Giant wanted would create safety hazards for customers driving through the parking lot.
The votes on who had standing and the Giant request to build were both split, 3 to 2.
In notifying Erskine, the appeal board's administrative assistant said board member James Howard moved to reconsider standing in the case during the Sept. 11 work session, citing a decision in a prior Baltimore land-use case.
In that decision, a judge ruled that Remington resident Benn Ray had no standing to object to a proposed development of apartments and a big-box store on the site of a closed car dealership because he didn't live close enough to be negatively affected.
Alleva and Erskine said the Benn Ray case already had been discussed in a prior Board of Appeals hearing.
Erskine wrote to the board and requested the Oct. 3 work session not be held. He wrote that Maryland law requires motions to reconsider standing be brought by a party to the case, and only then in the event of a mistake of fact or law.
"Quite simply, Mr. Howard is asking the Board to reconsider the exact same facts and the exact same law and is hoping that the Board will have an impermissible change of mind [Erskine's emphasis]," he wrote.
Barry Sanders, counsel for Howard and the Board of Appeals, declined to be interviewed. Howard also would not answer questions about the case.
County Deputy Solicitor Paul Johnson, who does not represent the board, said no state open meetings rules were broken.
"I think it would be a little bit excessive to say we have to give everybody notice to say we're having a work session to decide when we're going to have another work session," Johnson said.