Subdivision plan debated in court At heart of the issue is ability to challenge planning commission


After seven months of debating the issues on paper, a group of Hampstead residents opposing the expansion of North Carroll Farms finally got its day in court yesterday. Oral arguments before Circuit Judge Raymond E. Becnning and Zoning Commission approval of the subdivision in August 1994.

Since then, Hampstead's council has approved legislation allowing any town taxpayer to appeal a planning commission decision to the Board of Zoning Appeals. That ordinance, a basis of the residents' arguments yesterday, came under attack by Manchester attorney Elwood E. Swam, who represents North Carroll Farms developer Martin K. P. Hill, as being unfairly retroactive.

Mr. Swam also argued that the board was correct in ruling that the residents -- upset about the strain the 220-home development would put on already overburdened schools, roads and town wells -- weren't inconvenienced any more than the rest of the town, and therefore couldn't appeal.

"For the court to find that any person was aggrieved, they have to find that they were affected differently in some fashion from the general public," said Mr. Swam, adding that the petitioners in earlier testimony had acknowledged that the entire town would be adversely affected by more development.

In response, the residents' attorney, Thomas J. Gisriel of Towson, argued that Mr. Swam's definition of the general public is too narrow.

"If they put a nuclear waste dump in the middle of Hampstead, are you going to argue that since everyone is affected, no one can be aggrieved?" Mr. Gisriel asked yesterday.

Mr. Gisriel also argued that litigants can take advantage of any legal changes that benefit them.

Therefore, he said, Judge Beck should use Hampstead's new law to decide who can appeal commission decisions.

Much of Judge Beck's immediate reaction yesterday to the attorneys' oral arguments was more philosophical than legal.

When Mr. Swam said Hampstead's new legislation shouldn't apply to this case, the judge asked Mr. Swam to explain how he felt about retroactive legislation in general.

And during Hampstead's arguments that its new legislation is appropriate, Judge Beck asked attorneys whether it might unnecessarily clog the legal system.

"If that means inconvenience, I'll pay an extra $75 to make sure that the government operates from the bottom up, which I believe it was designed to do," said Westminster attorney Michelle M. Ostrander, who was hired by Hampstead to defend the new law.

Judge Beck said yesterday that he will issue a written decision in the case within the next few weeks.

If he agrees that residents should be allowed to challenge the subdivision approval, the case will be remanded to the %o Hampstead Board of Zoning Appeals.

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