When the Howard County Board of Appeals approved in 1995 a telephone company's request to build a cellular phone tower near a middle school in Ellicott City, Anne D. Lukiewski was confident that she would overturn the decision in Howard Circuit Court.
But her petition never reached court because Lukiewski couldn't afford the $1,275 cost of providing a transcript of 13 hours of hearings before the board.
"It's ridiculous because neighborhoods are not given the chance to fight corporations," Lukiewski says.
At $5 a page for an original transcript and two copies, the Howard rate is the highest in the Baltimore metropolitan region. The next highest rate is Anne Arundel's $4 a page.
The Howard rate is nearly $3 more than Montgomery County's $2.12 a page for a transcript and a copy, and $2 more than Prince George's $3 a page for a transcript.
"It's an unconscionable version of price gouging," says Thomas Dernoga, an attorney who represents a citizens group that is seeking court approval to reduce the transcript costs. "They are denying people their basic constitutional rights. This is a huge impediment."
The transcript costs are beginning to alarm county officials, including the chairman of the County Council -- who vows to explore the issue this year.
"We've never had any complaints about it before," says C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat. "I know it's something we're going to discuss."
The issue has grown in significance in counties such as Howard, where new residents have strained the housing market, roads, schools and the environment.
As the county population has nearly doubled from 118,572 in 1980 to 236,269 in September, the incidence of rezoning cases, special exceptions and variances has also risen.
The problem is that not everyone is pleased with decisions rendered by the Board of Appeals or the Zoning Board. Those who dislike a decision have the option of asking the Circuit Court to review it.
Part of that appeals process requires an original transcript to be filed in the Circuit Court, usually at the expense of the appellant.
Unlike other jurisdictions, Howard does not contract out transcribing work to private firms. County employees can transcribe the audiotapes only during their free time, such as nights and weekends, for which they are paid.
Robin Regner, an administrative assistant to the Zoning Board, defends the transcript rate. She points out that one hour of recording time takes eight hours to transcribe, proofread and correct.
"It's very time-consuming," Regner says.
"You have to listen to it and make sure that everything is right. It's not like [the $5 rate is] totally out of line."
Some Howard residents and land-use attorneys acknowledge that the transcript cost is minor compared with the fees paid to lawyers, consultants and experts.
"If you're trying to do something for nothing, it's not going to work," says David Carney, a Columbia lawyer who advises his clients to be prepared for a lengthy and expensive battle. "The cost of the transcript should never affect your strategy."
But cases such as Lukiewski's, where the transcript costs become prohibitive, are not isolated. A Jessup homeowner dropped her effort last year to challenge approval of a rock quarry because of the estimated $12,000 cost of a transcript of 19 nights of hearings.
Dernoga's client, an umbrella organization of a dozen community groups in North Laurel fighting a proposed Columbia-style village, has asked a Circuit Court judge to permit the association to transcribe only 224 of the 1,332 pages of testimony from 15 nights of hearings to reduce the expense of the appeal by more than $5,000.
Although Regner says she would not oppose contracting the transcribing, she says she is worried that outside employees will make too many mistakes.
"There's a lot of zoning terminology that many people don't know, and you have to be able to recognize the voices of who's speaking," Regner says. "That's going to affect the quality."
Susan Gray is not convinced. The Clarksville attorney says a group of Highland homeowners she represents in a zoning dispute over four houses on an environmentally sensitive parcel were told that the cost to transcribe two nights of hearings would be about $2,000.
Gray says they found a court reporter who offered to do the same work for $600.
"All the county has to do is certify that the audiotapes [of the hearings] are correct and provide those tapes to let the appellant find someone to transcribe them," Gray says. "Then the burden is on you to correct it if there's a mistake. It's no big deal."
But the biggest complaint is the rate of $5 a page. While developers and corporate giants can transfer the expense of the transcripts to their clients, residents and community groups cannot. When Jean I. Quattlebaum and two other residents learned that they had to pay $10,000 for a transcript of a 1993 Zoning Board decision on the Waverly Woods development in Ellicott City, they knocked on doors and stood on corners asking for donations.
"It's too cost-prohibitive," says Quattlebaum, who lives in Ellicott City. "When you've got a group of citizens fighting to maintain the quality of life, you can only go so far."
Dernoga says the rate is so exorbitant that he advises clients to keep their protests brief or to submit them in writing.
"There's no use going over every bit of minutia and losing," Dernoga says. "I don't have this consideration anywhere else but Howard County."
Pub Date: 1/07/99