Advertisement
News

Cost of lawsuits exceeds $121,000

Land-use lawyers and developers predicted lawsuits would follow if the Carroll County commissioners imposed a yearlong freeze on residential development.

But the county commissioners decided to follow through on their campaign promise to slow growth. The result: nearly a dozen lawsuits began deluging the county attorney's mailbox soon after the freeze was imposed in June 2003. As lawsuits mounted, so did legal bills from an outside law firm hired to handle the volume of litigation.

Advertisement

The tab through May: $121,811.68.

Or on average $12,181.17 per case, representing 10 of 11 lawsuits that were filed.

Advertisement

The county paid an additional $24,448.21 in consulting fees to Stanley D. Abrams, a prominent Maryland land-use lawyer and a partner in Abrams, West & Storm P.C., the Bethesda firm hired to manage the lawsuits. The invoices from the Bethesda firm were obtained by a request through the Maryland Public Information Act.

"That sure would buy a teacher for a year," said James Harris, managing member of JFJME Family LLC, the first developer to file suit against the county, of the six-figure sum.

The $121,811.68 paid to Abrams, West & Storm covers the law firm's work on 10 cases, including writing briefs and motions, presenting oral arguments at hearings, conducting research and preparing appellate briefs.

The county generally paid an hourly charge of about $175.

The $24,448.21 in additional legal fees covered more than 100 hours of consulting work involving the county's moratorium on residential growth, a freeze on most commercial development on land zoned for industrial use and an amendment to the residential freeze allowing for an economic hardship exemption.

Although the yearlong residential freeze expired last month and the county commissioners recently adopted stricter growth regulations, the legal battle challenging the freeze continues.

The cost to defend the county's moratorium is expected to escalate as nine lawsuits wind through the state appeals system, including three scheduled to be argued before the Maryland Court of Appeals in fall. Two more lawsuits are pending in Carroll County Circuit Court.

"Litigation generally is a very expensive exercise," said David Bowersox, a Westminster land-use lawyer representing three developers in five separate lawsuits. "This kind of litigation, with some of the complexities it has, is likewise a very expensive exercise. I'm not surprised at the amount of attorney fees. I would not be surprised if the number had been higher."

Advertisement

While the total price tag of $146,259.89 may cause some taxpayers to question the expense at a time when county coffers are tight, the commissioners say it would have cost the county even more money had rampant growth continued unchecked.

"It sounds like a lot of money until you think about the cost of not doing anything about the growth situation," Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said. "All our cases are on appeal. If we win them, it's not the county commissioners running up the bill, but the developers running up the bill.

"The taxpayers are paying $146,000 to make sure that they don't have to pay an unfair share of future growth," Minnich added.

As the fastest-growing county in the region, with a population of about 163,000, Carroll has been experiencing growing pains in the last decade. Residents have long complained that loosely controlled growth has outpaced the county's ability to provide adequate schools, roads, emergency services and water and sewer service.

In June 2003, Commissioners Julia Walsh Gouge, Perry L. Jones Jr. and Minnich decided to halt the processing of all development proposals for a year, while the county re-evaluated its growth policies.

The moratorium interrupted about 90 projects -- totaling 1,700 lots -- in various stages of review.

Advertisement

"When we went into the whole process, we knew it would probably be something we'd have to fight in court," Gouge said. "The most important thing is it was something we were doing because Carroll Countians asked us to."

Gouge, an incumbent commissioner, ran in 2002 with Jones and Minnich on a platform to slow development.

Six months later, the three officials imposed the moratorium so county planners could find ways to better manage residential growth and make sure the county has enough money to pay for county services.

"What we may have accomplished is saving millions and millions of dollars," she said. "The bottom line is if we don't have the facilities, we are cheating the people who live here and the people who came here."

But the response from developers was a series of lawsuits.

They filed 11 lawsuits challenging the freeze. In nine of the cases, a Carroll County circuit judge granted the developers temporary relief from the freeze, forcing the county to resume processing their plans.

Advertisement

The developers had each received certificates from the county before the freeze took effect saying that their projects would not overwhelm schools, roads and emergency services. They contended that the certificates guaranteed they could proceed with their plans.

Carroll County Circuit Judge Michael M. Galloway ruled in each of the nine cases that the certificates could be considered contracts, but the county maintains the certificates offer timelines for the projects, not guarantees that they would move forward.

The county has appealed all nine rulings, three of which are before the state's highest court. Two other lawsuits are pending in Circuit Court.

Developers say the legal fight would have never ensued if the commissioners had honored the certificates.

"It was very predictable as to what was going to happen if they took the more aggressive approach," said Dick Hull, president of Carroll Land Services Inc. and a consultant to county builders since the 1960s. "The question the citizens of Carroll County need to ask is if the plaintiffs prevail, there could be substantial damage awards that would dwarf the legal costs. So far, the plaintiffs have won every decision that has been decided."

The fees for the private law firm are not the only costs to taxpayers, developers say. There are the additional indirect and uncalculated costs, such as time spent by the county attorneys and other employees on work related to the lawsuits.

Advertisement

"The citizens have paid tens of thousands of dollars for county attorney time," said Brian Chapline, a Westminster resident who founded the Carroll County Landowners Network, a group that advocates property owners' rights. "It's more than $140,000. There's no way to put a number on that."

County budget officials say money for outside legal costs is included in the county attorney's budget annually. Almost all of the $146,259.89 bill was covered by the county's adjusted $251.7 million budget for the 2004 fiscal year, which ended June 30.

In this fiscal year's $262.7 million budget, county officials allocated $85,000 in the county attorney's $902,000 budget to pay for outside legal fees.

In most legal matters, the county attorney's office handles the cases.

Outside legal counsel is usually hired for two reasons, said County Attorney Kimberly A. Millender. Either a case requires expertise, such as specialty in laws governing bonds and pensions, or the volume of litigation becomes overwhelming, Millender said.

The growth freeze-related lawsuits, for the most part, met both criteria, Millender said.

Advertisement

The lawsuits began piling up in fall while the county attorneys were working on related cases. Thirty-six administrative appeals were filed by landowners and developers to the county's Board of Zoning Appeals, Millender said.

The $121,811.68 bill represents only 10 of the 11 lawsuits challenging the moratorium because the county's insurance company is picking up the costs for the remaining case, Millender said. The 11th case was the only one that requested damages.

"When you look at the big figure, it's a lot of money, but divided by 10, it makes your realize the volume involved," Millender said.

Gouge said the county deals with lawsuits on a regular basis.


Advertisement