Anne Arundel County attorneys say the county's planning director, Joseph W. Rutter, has been improperly applying some development rules.
Rutter disagrees and says he will not change his practices, which he called "the only defensible standard" under the law.
Without the intervention of Rutter's boss, County Executive Janet S. Owens, it is unclear how this intragovernmental conflict will be resolved or what its implications could be.
The mess started in October, when county attorneys issued an advisory opinion at the request of Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk. The Annapolis Democrat said Rutter was not complying with county standards that limit development based on school capacity.
"He's become a law unto himself," she said.
County attorneys, in an Oct. 18 opinion, agreed that Rutter was not operating correctly.
But Rutter disputes the opinion and plans to continue following his interpretation of the law.
Samorajczyk said she cannot force the planning director to follow the attorneys' opinion. She said Owens, a Democrat, should ask him to comply.
"The ball is really in her court," Samorajczyk said. "All I can do is raise the issue."
Owens declined through a spokesperson to comment on the matter.
The dispute centers on long-debated questions of how the county should project school enrollment and how those projections should be used to govern new development.
Every time the county reviews a proposed subdivision, officials calculate whether the number of school-aged children in the development would make area schools too crowded.
Until recently, school officials made these calculations. If they determined that a subdivision would attract 25 elementary school students but that the local school could hold only 20 more students, they rejected the proposed development.
Earlier this year, Rutter's department took control of that process. The planning director believed school officials had not applied the law correctly, so he changed the procedure.
Under Rutter's practice, any school with open seats is allowed to accommodate a new subdivision. So if the proposed development is expected to attract 25 elementary school students and the local school has 20 open seats, the subdivision is allowed to go forward.
"As soon as I learned that there was a problem with the procedures being followed, I initiated a process to correct them," Rutter wrote in his rebuttal to the opinion. "I did not just change the process without bringing all the parties together to discuss and agree on the facts."
Rutter says the change in methods has cleared the way for two subdivisions - projected to bring in about 17 students between them - that would have been halted under previous practices.
He added that the questions raised by attorneys will become irrelevant once the County Council approves a proposed list of school districts that are off-limits to development. The council rejected a version of that list earlier this year, and it is unclear when it will vote on a revised draft.
While the council waits to vote, the county is operating under "transitional rules." Samorajczyk said council members were led to believe those rules would be the same ones school and planning officials have always used.
"But Rutter came in and changed everything," she said. "What he's doing is not what we approved."
Samorajczyk said she became frustrated when Rutter approved a subdivision that would feed students into Annapolis High School, which she says is clearly too crowded. She said she assumed that once county attorneys issued an opinion, Rutter would follow it.
"He can't choose what laws are going to apply and what laws are not," she said.
But assistant county attorney David A. Plymyer said his office's opinion is an interpretation, not law. "Our advice has been given, but what happens as a consequence, I can't comment on," he said.