In an opinion mailed Friday, Howard Circuit Court Judge James B. Dudley ruled that the county school system does not have to comply with local zoning laws in asking for exemptions to construction regulations when building schools.
"The Howard County Charter, the Howard County Code and the Howard County Zoning Regulations make no reference to the standards required for variances for governmental uses of land," Dudley wrote, noting later that the current system for such exemptions is adequate.
That process requires only that the County Council determine whether deviations are "in the public interest" for governmental bodies - such as the school system - after holding a public hearing on the matter.
The case grew from an appeal filed by a group of Marriottsville residents fighting the placement of a new high school in their community. The appeal claimed that the County Council arbitrarily granted 11-foot height and 5-foot setback variances for the school without considering the consequences.
Dudley dismissed that appeal, but he allowed for a follow-up hearing last month to examine which standards should be applied when allowing school variances.
At the hearing, the Marriottsville residents' group, represented by attorney Allen Dyer, claimed schools should be built to rigid county zoning codes and not be allowed to stray from them without a proven need. The County Council's attorney said its public-interest method was best; and a Board of Education lawyer said none of it matters because as a state agency, local rules don't apply to the school system.
Dudley's opinion agreed with the County Council.
"When working for a public purpose to forward the public good, the local government needs to have the authority to act," said Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, who was pleased with the opinion. "Those who are elected should be vested in making those decisions."
But Dyer said this is "not the end of the line" for his clients, who will take the next two weeks to consider appealing the decision, which must be done within 30 days.
"They don't want to do something in the heat of emotion, and it's kind of difficult to avoid emotion in this situation," Dyer said. "They have construction crews and earth movers in their neighborhood building this rather formidable building."