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Balto. Co. official is hired by Venable

Arnold Jablon, the man who for 25 years has had a hand in crafting nearly every nook and cranny of Baltimore County's development regulations, has retired to begin a new job this week at Venable, Baetjer and Howard, the county's most prominent law firm for land use -- a move that makes some community activists nervous.

To them, it's like watching the Yankees clinch the pennant and then trade for Barry Bonds for good measure.

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Already, they feel outgunned by the well-schooled, well-prepared and well-paid attorneys developers can afford to hire and they can't. Life won't get any easier, they figure, facing a lawyer who knows everyone in the government and who literally wrote the book on how development is done in Baltimore County.

"Law firms hire people all the time for their expertise and their contacts -- that's the way the world turns," said Bill Libercci Sr., who heads the Perry Hall Improvement Association's development committee.

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"He's going to be one more guy in favor of development, nothing new in Baltimore County. Developers, they control the playing field, and that's been going on for a long time," he said.

Jablon, 59, who is scheduled to begin working at Venable on Tuesday, said he is flattered at the notion that he would be some kind of super-lawyer. "If that were true, I should have demanded more money," he said.

But he said land-use law is a natural fit for a second career because that's where his expertise lies. He said he would also like to do work in other counties and in other kinds of law for the sake of experience.

"I'm not ready to retire. I wanted to move on, and I want to do other things," said Jablon, whose county retirement took effect Friday.

He concedes that it's a bit crass to say so, but Jablon is also in this for the money.

He makes $133,900, and when he retires, his maximum pension benefit will be $10,233 a month, more than 90 percent of his salary. Going into private practice effectively means a huge raise.

"I've got four kids and a lot of college," he said.

Making people mad

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Jablon started in county government 25 years ago as an attorney for the school board and eventually became zoning commissioner, county attorney and, most recently, director of permits and development management in a county department created with him in mind.

There are two people who, it is often said, know where all the bodies are buried in the county government. One is budget chief Fred Homan, and the other is Jablon.

Despite working on development and code enforcement, two of the hottest issues in county government, and making plenty of people mad along the way, Jablon has served under five county executives.

Jablon said he is melancholy to be leaving after so long. He has enjoyed the work, enjoyed the people and enjoyed the action. He's taking his desk with him when he goes to Venable -- the county decided it was too old to be worth anything and is giving it to him.

He said he's surprised, though, that anybody cares what he does when he leaves.

"I thought people would be happy I was leaving. Get rid of me!" Jablon said.

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That's the problem, said Kathleen Skullney, a community activist from Granite and former director of Common Cause/Maryland.

She said she and other community activists have for years seen Jablon as a main cog in a system that favors developers over community voices. And no matter how many county executive candidates promised to get rid of Jablon, he kept his job. Even in retirement, he'll still be around.

"Every time you think he is finally gone, he simply re-emerges in a more insidious way," she said.

What Jablon's detractors note, more than a decision on any specific development over the years, is what they see as the imperiousness of his office.

Over the years, they say, Jablon has amassed a great deal of power and discretion, leading to complaints of arbitrariness in how the county has approached development, historical preservation, code enforcement and other matters.

"Sometimes it has benefited me, and sometimes it has been a detriment to me," said Donna Spicer, a Loch Raven community activist. "The disadvantage to everyone, and I get more complaints from developers and engineers than I do from community members on this, is nobody knows what the rules are."

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Libercci said he's happy to see Jablon go into private practice because it will provide the opportunity for changes in the office to make it less arbitrary.

"All the zoning inspectors are instructed not to seek violations. If it's not complaint-driven, they don't do anything," Libercci said. "If they came to my house on a zoning complaint and my next-door neighbor had exactly the same thing, they'd cite me and do nothing to him. We hope that changes."

Jablon has his defenders, too.

Ella White Campbell, a community activist from Randallstown, said Jablon always listened and followed through.

"I think he served admirably," she said. "I didn't always agree with his attention to zoning matters, but I think that he tried his best to provide this county with good service."

Theresa Lowry, a community activist from Lansdowne who has known Jablon for decades, said his chief virtue was he understood that his job was to make decisions that not everyone would like, and he always stood by them.

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"He was kind of fair, and he wasn't judgmental. He kind of had a gray zone once in a while -- not everything was black and white. He was able to see things a little clearer than the average person, and that made him unique," Lowry said. "Some of the civic leaders didn't like him a whole lot, but in candor, I would rather deal with somebody who was straight up and honest, rather than somebody who was sneaky behind the back."

Limited by ethics laws

In the private sector, Jablon's activities will, at least temporarily, be limited by county ethics laws, which state that a former official or employee may not be paid to represent an outside interest for 12 months in connection with "any proceeding, application, case, contract or other specific matter involving the county or any agency thereof" if the matter is one in which he "significantly participated as an official or employee through decision, approval or recommendation."

For 12 months after that, a former official or employee is required to disclose the nature of his previous participation.

Jablon said he intends to take a conservative approach to the law and avoid getting involved with matters he "even had peripheral knowledge of" as permits and development management director.

The nightmare prospect for community activists isn't that Jablon would somehow benefit from his knowledge of particular projects but that, as far as county zoning law goes, he has been the law for years, Spicer said.

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She said Jablon's historical knowledge and breadth of experience have been valuable and are probably irreplaceable.

But she said she can imagine sitting in a hearing and watching Jablon tell the next zoning commissioner what the law means, not the other way around.

"How do you fight the gentleman who has made the code?" she said.

Not everyone is worried.

Larry Townsend, a Timonium activist and co-chair of the Community Conservation Advisory group, said he's not afraid of Jablon or any other lawyer representing the other side so long as the county executive keeps fair-minded people as zoning commissioner and deputy zoning commissioner.

"I don't have any problem with Arnold," Townsend said. "Bring it on."


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