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A new flock of legal eagles on the Bay

A new flock of legal eagles on the Bay

When a developer sought approval not long ago to build an assisted living facility near the mouth of the Magothy River in Anne Arundel County, residents showed up to oppose it, as one might expect.  They had a lawyer, of course, which also was not that unusual - except that this legal eagle was representing them for free.   After a lengthy proceeding, a hearing examiner found that the project would violate the state's Critical Area law, prompting the developer to scale back his plans for building on a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.

Russell B. Stevenson Jr., the lawyer in that case, counts that as the first significant victory for the fledgling Chesapeake Legal Alliance  that he helped form.   Established a little over a year ago, the nonprofit network of lawyers and firms offers pro bono legal help to citizen and environmental groups seeking to enforce the laws designed to safeguard the bay.

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"A lot of the decisions that get made by state and local governments on issues that affect the bay are made where the commercial interests are well-represented by sophisticated, highly paid counsel, and where citizen groups and environmental organizations can't afford lawyers," said Stevenson.  "The civil servants who are supposed to enforce the law get pushed all in one direction - there's no one pushing back.  We're there to push back."

The group was to hold a fund-raiser near Annapolis last weekend, which Stevenson described as "a coming-out" celebration of sorts.

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It's a new career direction for Stevenson, 68, who lives on a tributary of the Magothy himself.   He retired two years ago as general counsel for Ciena Corp. and teaches law at Georgetown University in Washington.

"I wanted to do something with my time and give back a little bit," he said.  "I grew up in Baltimore and have been sailing on the Chesapeake since I was a kid.  I love the bay, and have a house on the bay, and have been frustrated by what was going on on the bay - or not going on with the bay."

The alliance's website lists a board of 16 lawyers, many with corporate practices and some with experience working in government.  Stevenson said they serve as a network to broker free legal help, and so far have enlisted about a dozen firms and individual lawyers to take on cases.

The alliance is helping the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper in its complaint that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment have failed to enforce a 13-year-old consent agreement requiring cleanup of pollution from steel-making at Sparrows Point.  It's representing individuals and groups in challenging developments they believe would be harmful to the bay.

Stevenson said the alliance also is helping the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic on a lawsuit it brought on behalf of the Waterkeeper Alliance and one of its member groups alleging that a Worcester County chicken farm and Perdue Farms are polluting a tributary of the bay.

The alliance is stepping up even as the political heat grows on law school clinics, which have been a traditional provider of free legal help for individuals and groups seeking to challenge environmental permits or enforce laws.

The UM law school nearly had a chunk of its funding withheld this year by lawmakers in Annapolis angered over the involvement of the school's environmental law clinic in suing Hudson Farms and Perdue.  Lawyers for the farm and Perdue have denied the allegations, and critics have called the suit a threat to family farms and an economic pillar of the Eastern Shore.   Lawmakers ultimately dropped their plan to withold funds until the school reported on the clinics' clients and sources of other funding.  But one key lawmaker said the "message" had been delivered that the clinic should think about the cases it brings.

Law school clinics in Louisiana also are in the political cross-hairs, after chemical and oil industry lobbyists prompted a lawmaker to introduce a bill that would deny state funding to any university whose clinic sues a government agency, seeks damages against an individual or raises constitutional clalims.

Stevenson makes clear that the alliance is no substitute for the free legal  help offered by law school clinics.  Its members are either retired or semi-retired, like he is, or have full-time practices.  But since they work for free, this is one group that's immune to political budget cuts.

"We are finding that if you show up with a good lawyer, you can make a difference in outcomes," he said. "That's one of the things we're about."

(Baltimore Sun file photo)

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