A Baltimore County judge ruled yesterday that the Baltimore County Board of Appeals violated Maryland's open-meetings law by conducting its deliberations behind closed doors.
"The language of this statute is clear," wrote Circuit Judge Barbara Kerr Howe, "and its plain reading dictates that zoning matters must be considered publicly."
Judge Howe's ruling came in a long-running dispute over expansion plans by Villa Julie College in the Green Spring Valley. The zoning commissioner and Board of Appeals have approved those plans with some modifications.
The judge did not say whether decisions reached in private could be reversed. A hearing to discuss solutions to the Villa Julie case is scheduled for Tuesday.
The open-meetings challenge originated last spring, when the Board of Appeals closed its deliberations on the question of a water-treatment plant at the college. It eventually ruled that the state -- and not the board -- had jurisdiction over the plant.
J. Carroll Holzer, an attorney representing the Valleys Planning Council and several groups and individuals opposed to the project, challenged the closed deliberations in court. The Maryland attorney's general's office and The Sun joined the suit.
The Board of Appeals hears appeals concerning any administrative decision, including zoning issues, liquor licenses, and disputes over retirement benefits. While the board holds open hearings, it continued to discuss general issues and vote in closed session after the open-meetings law -- which contains language specific to zoning matters -- took effect in July 1992.
Three board members have filed affidavits since April saying they feared being misquoted if meetings were open, and that they would probably be more guarded in their comments.
"I would not tend to be frank and candid in expressing my thoughts in situations where panel members assess and weigh the credibility of witnesses," said Harry E. Buchheister Jr. "I would be concerned that my remarks would be misquoted or would provoke a reaction from someone in the hearing room which I would consider to be threatening or intimidating."
Board member Judson H. Lipowitz said he was concerned that "the deliberations, rather than the law or evidence, would become the subject of public debate."
Attorney Benjamin Bronstein, who represents Villa Julie, said his client won't be affected by this aspect of the case unless the board's decisions on the issues it deliberated in private are reversed.
A reversal is what Mr. Holzer wants, in addition to reimbursement for the cost of the lawsuit. Those questions are scheduled for a hearing with Judge Howe Tuesday, he said.
"The open-meeting decision by the judge certainly supports what I said from the beginning -- that it should be done openly. And everybody laughed at me," Mr. Holzer said.
The community groups who hired him "should be compensated for the attorney's fees they had to pay to get [something] so obvious to be ruled upon. They had to foot the bill to force the Baltimore County Board of Appeals to comply with the law," he added.
The county attorney who defended the board could not be reached for comment.
Mary R. Craig, attorney for The Sun, said her interest is in gaining access to the meetings, not the Villa Julie vote itself, adding, "Once [the Board of Appeals] said they had no intention of abiding by the law, we felt we had no choice."